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November 01, 2018

Midterm Madness

In a comment on a Facebook thread begun by my colleague Susan Love Brown, I made a stark political admission, not without a lot of consideration as to the damage that Donald Trump has created in his wake. As I stated on Facebook:

I am sick of this President and virtually everything he stands for. He has done nothing to shake up the Establishment he allegedly fought against (the "Deep State", made up of the Fed, the National Security complex, and the regulatory apparatuses---all beyond the ballot box, are still at the core of U.S. power), and instead of pulling back on U.S. interventionism abroad, he has given us the largest defense budget in U.S. history, unprecedented deficits, and an exponentially expanding federal debt. The GOP, which once stood for "fiscal conservatism", has gone back to its nineteenth-century origins, with its advocacy of high tariffs and pronounced economic "nationalism," something this President now boasts as a political label.
Unfortunately, I am just as sick of both the Republicans and the Democrats who have voiced opposition to him, but have done next to nothing to stop the insanity. And if the Democrats offer nothing but "democratic socialism" to oppose him, they will be crushed in the next election. The U.S. has survived Civil War, two World Wars, a Great Depression, the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s (from the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights struggles to Watergate), and it is my hope that this too shall pass.
But what will replace it---when the bar has been lowered with each passing day that this man occupies the White House?

Now, for those who have claimed that Trump has reduced regulation and, to that extent, has freed up the economy, all I can say is: No action of the government is neutral and selective de-regulation benefits some interests at the expense of others. Likewise, no change in tax laws is neutral; the effects on higher standard-of-living (and hence, higher cost-of-living) states, like New York, and other Blue States that didn't cast their Electoral votes for Team Trump, have every indication of being catastrophic for those who pay higher local, city, state, and property taxes, but who cannot list these taxes as deductions on their federal income tax returns (beyond an individual ceiling of $10,000). My own family has felt the impact of the Trump Tax Plan up close and personal. It has been disastrous and it's going to undermine the economic health of the city of New York---which has provided nearly $150 billion in federal tax revenue, nearly 10% of federal income taxes.

As I state above, my opposition to Trump is not a vote of confidence in the alternative being presented by so-called "Progressives" in the Democratic Party, who favor "democratic socialism." One Facebook member took issue with my opposition to "democratic socialism" and I offered this response:

[When people mention "democratic socialism,"] I am not thinking central planning or Stalin at all. I'm thinking that power is fundamentally held by those Deep State elements I mentioned above. Nothing is going to change that reality; to adopt a larger "social welfare" net for those who are institutionally disadvantaged does nothing to solve the structural issues that have created the need for a welfare state or the sustained practices of a warfare state.
Every so-called "Progressive" advance advocated in the history of the United States, from the establishment of central banking to a host of regulatory agencies designed to "protect" the public have invariably protected the very industries they were allegedly established to regulate. That is because the real push for these "progressive" agencies came from the industries themselves as a way to stifle competition and destroy competitors. Note that the most powerful advocates of "Obamacare" were the largest health insurance companies, which benefit from the socialization of risk (those whom they would have had to insure regardless of pre-existing conditions), while augmenting their profits, and, of course, the pharmaceutical industry.
Whatever "democratic socialism" means, in the context of these United States, it will only be implemented if it can serve the needs of those already deeply embedded in the structure of privilege. That is the context we live in, and it is not likely to change. Except that it would most likely erode those remaining productive sectors of the economy that would be taxed out of existence in order to provide a whole host of new "progressive" programs costing trillions upon trillions of dollars.

If only "None of the Above" were a ballot choice, we might, at least, be able to de-legitimize the entire government. It would be a vote against the damage that government has done to human liberty---whether in the name of corporatist nationalism or corporatist welfare statism.

Sorry to disappoint Trumpsters and Non-Trumpsters alike. I'm just tired of voting for the lesser of two evils, and I've had it with this One-Party System that offers two variants of statist tyranny.

After posting this on Facebook, I offered some additional observations, and will update this blog entry should I have anything else to say (as of November 6, 2018, there have been 119 comments on the thread):

One thing that seems to go unnoticed is that Trump, who may or may not have read Machiavelli's sixteenth-century work, The Prince, has become the supreme Machiavellian in politics. Or to use another metaphor, he's played his supporters and his opponents in the language of Alice in Wonderland, where up is down and down is up. It's a great strategy for holding onto political power.

Another respondent claimed that in a choice between Trump and the left, the choice for Trump is clear, given the left's penchant for "identity politics." I responded:

As I have made clear, I do not support the left. The problem is, however, that identity politics has been fully embraced by the right, as well. As Rand herself once observed, statism and tribalism are fraternal twins; once political power becomes the central principle for the organization of social life, no power on earth can stop the formation of rival pressure groups warring against one another. This tendency will balkanize a society, splitting it into groups that emerge from virtually every distinguishing characteristic of human existence as a cause for the aggrandizement of political power. See my discussion in "Statism and Tribalism: Fraternal Twins."

That same respondent claimed that my comment that the right has embraced identity politics as much as the left was "utter bullshit" ("with all due respect," as he put it), to which I responded:

Well, "with all due respect," there are elements of the alt-right (which has supported Trump) that has cashed-in on identity politics by appealing to a whole panoply of disgusting racist and sexist attitudes. Pick 'em from this glorious list: those on the "right" who are anti-Semitic, anti-gay, misogynist, White Supremacist, anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and so on and so on.
They play the game as well as the left, and have come out of the woodwork in the Age of Trump. But they've been around since long before even the age of Reagan; they are as woven into the tattered American social fabric as any other nefarious forms of identity politics that one sees on the left.
With all due respect.

Persisting in his attack on my perspective, the reader alleged that I had swallowed the "hysterical" "drivel" of the politically-correct Left, which blamed all white men for society's sins. I replied at length:

I don't accept the belief that all white men are irredeemably evil. In case you haven't checked lately, I'm a white man.
But you cannot for a moment doubt that there is an element on the right that has clung to racist, sexist, misogynistic bigotry. What the hell was Southern apartheid, which was rampant through the 1960s, if not the state using Jim Crow laws to keep the descendants of freed black slaves in their place? What the hell were all those lynchings by the KKK about if not to keep African Americans in their place? Do you honestly wish to embrace that legacy of right-wing bigotry as part of the classical liberal or libertarian ideal? That is not part of the ideals upon which the United States was founded, but it is part of the historical record of this country. And it is also a part of our contemporary society. Racism exists. Sexism exists. Anti-gay fervor exists.
And so does all the ugly identity politics on the left, which I equally abhor.
But this is what happens in a society in which the group becomes the only political unit that matters. This is why Ayn Rand condemned collectivism on the left (she was, after all, a refugee who emigrated to the United States because of the bloody collectivism that was practiced by Marxist-Leninists in the Soviet Union). I don't know if she would have gotten into the United States if she tried to emigrate today.
But she was equally abhorred by the collectivism on the right---as expressed in her essay on "Racism" in which she condemned Southern conservatism (dominated by the way, by the Dixiecrats of the Democratic Party) for what it was: a racist culture that sought to dehumanize people because of the color of their skin.
If you think that racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, misogyny, and anti-gay fervor are absent from this society, then you're living in some other country. It exists. It is real. But I do not accept the collectivist premise that all white men are to blame for this.
The central reason why this kind of culture exists is that it is both a precondition and effect of a society that emboldens the group as the only political unit that matters. A society at war with individualism is a society at war with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But Rand recognized that as statism spreads, so too does the balkanization of a society. That is what gave such political impetus to the insane identity politics of the left. As I wrote in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical:
Rand argued that the relationship between statism and tribalism was reciprocal. The tribal premise was the ideological and existential root of statism. Statism had arisen out of "prehistorical tribal warfare." Once established, it institutionalized its own racist subcategories and castes in order to sustain its rule. The perpetuation of racial hatred provided the state with a necessary tool for its political domination. Statists frequently scapegoated racial and ethnic groups in order to deflect popular disaffection with deteriorating social conditions. But if tribalism was a precondition of statism, statism was a reciprocally related cause. Racism had to be implemented politically before it could engulf an entire society: "The political cause of tribalism's rebirth is the mixed economy---the transitional stage of the formerly civilized countries of the West on their way to the political level from which the rest of the world has never emerged: the level of permanent tribal warfare."
In Rand’s view, the mixed economy had splintered the country into warring pressure groups. Under such conditions of social fragmentation, any individual who lacks a group affiliation is put at a disadvantage in the political process. Since race is the simplest category of collective association, most individuals are driven to racial identification out of self-defense. Just as the mixed economy manufactured pressure groups, so too did it manufacture racism.
As the mixed economy careens from one crisis to another, warfare between and within pressure groups intensifies. In this social context of wild uncertainty, each group attempts to deal with perceived threats to its efficacy by relying on the state. State action provides an illusory sense of control, since in the long run, political intervention necessarily undermines the stability and efficacy of every social group and every individual. Rand was adamant in this regard: she maintained that every discernable group was affected by statist intervention, not just every economic interest. Every differentiating characteristic among human beings becomes a tool for pressure-group jockeying: age, sex, sexual orientation, social status, religion, nationality, and race. Statism splinters society "into warring tribes."
The statist legal machinery pits "ethnic minorities against the majority, the young against the old, the old against the middle, women against men, welfare-recipient against the self-supporting."
Last time I checked, Rand was not characterized as an hysterical member of the politically correct Left or an advocate of original sin.
She simply saw what you apparently refuse to recognize.

Another reader asked if I was giving a "moral equivalence" to the identity politics on the right to the identity politics on the left, and I responded:

I understand what you are saying; but as I believe I made clear in my reply above, the initial "identity" politics that infected this country came from the bigotry of the racist South, with its history of slavery and Jim Crow laws. The left's identity politics was almost an inevitable by-product of such social conditions.
It's not so much a question of moral equivalence; perhaps it is best for me to simply state that I abhor the social conditions that make such group identification a tool for the jockeying of political power. Under these conditions, it doesn't matter who on the right or the left is clubbing me over the head for some special privilege. It's the system that must be attacked and fundamentally overturned.

I was asked, given the choices, "What should we do?" I replied:

Of course, the cause of liberty will go on; as I said in my post, the United States has survived Civil War, two World Wars, a Great Depression, the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, and it will most likely survive our current political and cultural upheaval, which, as far as I can tell, does not light a candle to the other events I've just mentioned. That said: The system has had an amazing resiliency---some of it good, some of it not-so-good.
[Indeed,] given the massive devastation the U.S. has faced from war and depression, I don't think that we are as yet facing the death of the republic (or whatever is left of it). Unfortunately, I don't have any answer as to what we should do in the meantime except to keep speaking up. And to defend the rights of others to speak up, whether or not we agree with them. ("Speaking up," however, stops short once violence is introduced, whether by White Supremacists, Anti-Semites, or "Antifa.")
Trump has made a whole lot of noise about "Fake News." And we hear endlessly about how the "leftist media" is against him. But in truth, the whole media is not "leftist." In fact, the vast majority of loud voices on talk radio are of the "right"; and the largest, most popular news outlet is the right-of-center Fox News.
Let's also not forget that sometimes the media can become a good punching bag, but that's only because in the past it has exposed a lot of truth that has shaken the ground of the politically powerful (for example, in laying bare the outright lies that led to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with the publication of "The Pentagon Papers", as well as the vast corruption of the Nixon administration in the scandal that became known as Watergate). Trump, however, has used his masterly social media skills and adversarial relationship with the press to his benefit.
On the other hand, a subservient press can easily become what Rand once called a "servile press," for its embrace of "voluntary 'self-enslavement'" that relies on government manipulation of the news "as an instrument of public policy." It was the basis for the "yellow journalism" that brought us the Spanish-American War to the galloping insanity that a mostly supportive popular press gave to George W. Bush in the lead-up to his Iraq adventure, which has had an unending series of both intended and unintended deleterious consequences.
We need to be vigilant against Trump's wholesale condemnation of the press and of political speech in general, or you can kiss the First Amendment goodbye. At which point, you better hold onto the Second Amendment to protect yourself against the powers that be.

I was criticized by another reader for my "moralizing and sanctimonious" post, somebody who wondered whether I was a "Never-Trumper." I wrote:

I was never a Never-Trumper, and I certainly did not vote for Hillary Clinton. And I don't find anything I've said as sanctimonious or moralizing. As an advocate of libertarianism, I reject economic nationalism, root, tree, branch, and leaves. It is a form of neo-mercantilist statism, and it is being opposed by Democratic politicians who favor yet another form of statism.
Ronald Reagan, for all his faults, would be rolling in his grave over Trump's nationalist rhetoric (Reagan was no libertarian, but his rhetoric made it possible to say the phrase "free markets" without being criticized as if one uttered some other "F-word" phrase.) And at least Reagan talked of tearing walls down, rather than building them up.
One thing Reagan said was clear: government has always been a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. Trump has instead used government as a tool to "solve" problems that government itself has created. And the tools at his disposal will never dismantle the central institutions at the heart of this system over which neither politicians nor voters have any power. And considering that the system has created a vast structure of dependency on government, it becomes an almost impossible task to uproot it fundamentally.
So what you see as "moralizing" is to me only an observation of fact. It is true: No one man, or even one party, can dismantle political institutions that pervade every aspect of our lives. As Hayek once said: When political power becomes the predominating principle for the organization of social life, then political power becomes the only power worth having. Hence, only those who are most adept at using political power (that is, the power to coerce) are the ones who tend to rise to the top. That is why, as Hayek put it in The Road to Serfdom, "the worst get on top."
Trump is certainly not the worst that we've seen. But I'll agree with you on one thing you've said: Give him a chance. :)

And, by the way, while we are on the subject of Reagan, I also wrote:

Just one word about New York [which is typically viewed as a Democratic-liberal stronghold]: Ronald Reagan won this state in both 1980 and 1984; and this very liberal Democrat-dominated city elected Republican Rudy Giuliani as mayor for two terms. Whatever your views of the current Rudy, his Compstat approach to crime brought this city from more than two thousand murders a year to around 300 murders a year. The Compstat approach has been so effective that not even a leading left-wing "progressive" Mayor De Blasio has abandoned it. Considering this is a city of nearly 9 million people, it is amazing to me how other cities (from Chicago to Detroit) have not learned something from the New York experience (which, yes, has had its ups-and-downs, but has largely kept crime rates way down).

Another comment questioned my views on Trump as a political outsider, and on Trump's approach to border security, the U.N., and aid to foreign states, and I replied:

I should state that the fact that he was not a political hack was one of the things I liked about him initially. If you see my review of Mercer's book on Trump, you'll see I voiced my concerns about the candidate, but applauded especially his anti-establishment views on neo-conservative foreign policy and his voiced opposition to both Bush's and Obama's policies abroad. I even predicted a Trump victory back in July 2016, and had a nice word to say about his family's support of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which gave my mother, who was dying of lung cancer in 1995, and our family, an all-expense paid limousine round-trip to Atlantic City.
I certainly had no personal animus toward him, and given the endless cycle of the Bush-Clinton dynasties, I hoped there might be a sea-change in American politics. But my views have obviously evolved...
Oh, as to your other questions: I like the idea of auditing the Fed, but would much prefer abolishing the Fed.
I understand the Trump concern with the border (though too much of his rhetoric fans the flames of xenophobia and hatred of "the other"), but I have a much more radical view of what's wrong systemically. Certainly, I think that the most legitimate concern has been that gangs and drugs are flooding into this country across the Mexican border (but this does not stop the U.S. government from encouraging the production of opium in Afghanistan because it is a "stabilizing" influence on the Afghan economy---even though the money made from that opium production typically funds terrorist activities abroad).
If drugs and crime are at issue, then the solution is much more radical than "protecting the border": end drug Prohibition, for the same reason that it was ended in the 1930s: because it has done nothing but enrich drug gangs, cartels, and organized crime. I realize this is a controversial view, but even conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, and George Will, have advocated a saner "medicalized" policy toward drugs (the current policy has given the U.S. the distinction of having the highest mass incarceration prison rate in the world).
On feeding the U.N. and other states: Trump is unfortunately talking out of both sides of his mouth. I'm no fan of the United Nations, but the "foreign aid" that goes to states that are even considered "allies", like Saudi Arabia, is, for Trump, a matter of U.S. jobs. "Foreign aid" has always been a tool of crony capitalism: the U.S. gives money to all sorts of despicable regimes around the world with the stipulation that it be used to purchase U.S.-produced munitions. That 17 of the 19 hijackers who rammed planes into buildings on 9/11 came out of Saudi Arabia, and that the regime was probably complicit in the horrendous attack on that day, means nothing---so why should the murder of a Washington Post reporter affect such "aid" (I'm still waiting for somebody to say: "Why make such a big deal over the death of a reporter from yet another 'Fake News' outlet?").

Another reader also questioned why I had not placed more emphasis on Trump's anti-immigration policies, and I replied:

I think I've clearly addressed that issue in many of the linked essays in today's Notablog post, and I have continued to address that issue. I agree that Trump has fanned the flames of xenophobia and hatred of the "other"---but to a certain extent, this is only one man we are talking about. He is a reflection of so much of what is wrong with America's tattered social fabric. And that is going to take generations to fix. Ultimately, in my view, his policies are an attack on basic values, the most important of which is liberty.

Another reader asks, given the conditions that exist, which side of the political divide in this country offers the most hope for repairing American society? I replied:

I guess deep down I do not believe that American politics can be repaired as long as we retain the current system. It is going to take a fundamental change in the cultural, social, and political conditions before any kind of sanity can be achieved in the United States.
I realize this sounds hopelessly pessimistic and perhaps not realistic, because I don't see either side of this divisive debate as offering the kind of fundamental change necessary for its resolution. Cliche or not, if one is to retain a sense of the radical, of "going to the root," then one sees more clearly that both sides are offering a state-centered approach to social change that can only lead to further social decay.

The Facebook discussion generated a lot of comments, not all of which I could possibly address, but I've tried to keep the essence of that discussion centered on this Notablog entry for the sake of posterity. One reader raised the question of Trump as a superior strategist, and I made the following comment:

I think we all know by now that Trump doesn't play by the rules---which gives him a strategic advantage. He also has been on outsider in dealing with governments in his life as a businessman, so he has seen the filth in business and the filth in politics from both sides of the camera. To what degree that filth has affected his personality or his policies is anyone's guess, but the man clearly can run rings around a lot of his opponents. People who dismiss him as dumb don't realize that he's a lot more savvy than most of his critics. Naturally, even though he fights the Establishment---he is now a part of it. And for anyone concerned about state-centered "solutions" to our political problems (which is what he offers as a self-admitted "nationalist"), you have to take pause.
The tantrums on both sides are likely to continue, but I do predict that if, in 2020, the Democratic Party embraces a full-throttled support of open "Progressive Democratic Socialism" (barring a major economic downturn), Donald Trump will be re-elected for four more years. Call it a gut instinct.
Now here's one that I've heard from the conspiracy theorists! Let's say we're all wrong. Let's say Trump is really trying to undermine the Deep State. If that's the case, the conspiracy theorists will tell you that he won't survive. There's this really terrible anecdote that has circulated for many years among those who embrace such conspiracy theories. But it goes a little like this: right before the President-elect is sworn in, the Deep State agents take him into a room and they shut the lights, and on a screen there appears the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. The horrifying images flicker away into darkness... but the impact remains. The lights are turned on, and the agents ask the President-elect: "Any questions?"
Anyway, thanks for the kind words, and I enjoyed reading your post.

The discussion has proceeded through the weekend of November 3-4, 2018; I posted a few additional comments. On Trump being among those who could change history, I stated:

I don't accept the Great Man Theory of history; people are as much the product of their context as they are the producers of it. And as far as I see it: PC culture has not silenced anyone. It has had a deadening effect in many sectors of our society, but it certainly has not silenced conservative talk radio hosts or the people who run Fox News, or the people who voted for Trump. Yes, he put a voice to discontent---but the discontent is not monolithic. He gave voice to out of work blue collar workers, but has also given license to hate-mongering racists. As a lifelong native resident of Brooklyn, New York, who has always lived in a middle class neighborhood, I have seen this man in action for decades in New York City, and he rarely struck me as a soldier for the common man. Too often, he came across as a smart-ass blabbermouth demanding to be the center of attention.
My biggest problem with him, however, remains with his politics. It is not the politics of freedom; it is the politics of economic nationalism, which does little to quell social divisiveness, since the very principle of nationalism feeds off of such divisiveness quite explicitly. I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree.

I was asked to expand on who I thought might embody the principles of freedom, in contrast to Trump; my reply was not an optimistic one:

There is nothing neat about politics: the left, which used to embrace civil liberties (and now too often attacks free speech on PC grounds), has been consistently opposed to genuine economic freedom; the right, which used to embrace economic liberties, often attacked civil liberties. But the reality has changed so markedly over the years. Former left-wingers, even Trotskyites, having seen the failure of socialist central planning, have now embraced the idea of imposing democracy on the rest of the world through U.S.-nation-building, and the war hawks among the post-World War II generation of conservatives were all too willing to jump aboard that bandwagon. This formed the core of the neoconservative political agenda that candidate Trump opposed (correctly, in my view).
And former advocates of more free-market solutions to economic problems have instead embraced more "pro-business" economic nationalist "solutions" that have encouraged higher tariffs, and manipulation of fiscal and monetary policy to encourage booms (while paying little attention to the busts that inevitably follow). (This is a policy that President Trump embraces, incorrectly, in my view.)
There is no current politician who embodies the ideals of a free market politics that is also friendly to civil liberties. And that is the tragedy of the current system: every political strain has a stake in bolstering some aspect of government power to regulate those areas of social life it considers most important. And neither the left nor the right have stood up to roll back the "Deep State" elements that are the most protective of the privileged: the Fed, which protects the big banks---and those high-debt, capital-intensive industries that benefit from inflationary monetary policies---all of which are deemed "too big to fail"; the National Security State, which eradicates our civil liberties, while emboldening what even Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against, in his farewell Presidential address: the rising influence of the "military-industrial complex," which emboldens industries tied to the production of military hardware, while crowding out peaceful commerce and trade; and the regulatory apparatus, which has grown exponentially to include a host of alphabet soup regulatory agencies whose policies benefit the larger, more powerful industries they allegedly regulate, for the "common good," while, in essence, destroying smaller, up-start competitors and the entrepreneurial spirit that they embody.
So, that is why I remain extremely pessimistic about the future of freedom in America. The possibility of resurrecting an industrial "base" is almost non-existent, given how much outsourcing there has been over these many decades; blue collar workers have been screwed; the middle class has been crushed, while "entitlement" programs are out of control; the tax base has been eroded; those who are "too big to fail" are ultimately bailed out by the U.S. taxpayer, and the U.S. remains deeply involved in every area of the world that it deems "strategically" valuable (which led candidate Trump to say, correctly, "Do you think we're so innocent?"---when asked to compare U.S. foreign policy actions to those of Russia).
I'm sorry to say, I have very little hope for the future of the United States. Sanford Ikeda, in his book, The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy, gives us a provocative thesis: governments that often regulate an economy too much such that they start to strangle the host upon which the parasitical privileged feast, may loosen up an economy just enough to encourage freer production. But this is a dangerous game---of loosening up and tightening up controls over economic life---because it introduces massive chaos into markets over the long run.
As Keynes once said, "In the long-run, we are all dead." I guess that's one of the reasons folks see economics as the "dismal science."

On November 5, one of the original discussants on Susan Love Brown's thread asked me once again to address the central question: "Would you choose fascism or 'democratic socialism' (which I believed I also identified as 'welfare capitalism')?" The reader claimed that I seem to be relying on a "deus ex machina" resolution that would entail people waking up one day and miraculously turning to libertarianism as a cure-all. But this is hoping for a "miracle," which the reader defined as "something outside of the ordinary course of experience and events." The reader continued: "At least the guys on the street corners who proclaim 'The End is Near; offer a solution. Since you apparently believe there is no solution, I continue to be puzzled about why you spend all this time discussing ideology." I provided two replies, reiterating points already made, but giving both the case for pessimism and the case for optimism:

I have not "answered" that central question because I reject both. However, if you are defining "welfare capitalism" as generally what we have today, I would be forced to say that if a gun were put to my head, I'd prefer what we have today than an even more authoritarian form of fascism. I have pretty much repeated myself about a dozen times in this thread, so I'll try one more time.
I believe that what we have today is, essentially neofascism, or a form of "liberal fascism" or "liberal corporatism," or "state capitalism", terms that are all, more or less, synonymous. The current situation meets all the economic criteria of that type of system: It features governmental action that largely operates to protect the most powerful economic interests through three insidious forms of support: 1) the Federal Reserve System, in which the state and the banking system are in an incestuous relationship, such that neither can exist without the other. Inflationary central banking is required for the growth of both the welfare and the warfare state. The banks and its largest debtors (capital-intensive industry) benefit from extensive inflationary policies, and when the inexorable busts come, they are bailed out for being "too big to fail." 2) The National Security Apparatus is another central feature of this system, and it is everything that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against: a vast military-industrial complex that undermines our civil liberties and benefits industries that are intimately related to munitions production and foreign military aid and intervention, protecting corporate interests both at home and abroad. And finally, (3) the entire alphabet soup of regulatory agencies that has been built over a long period of time, in which the most privileged businesses use regulation as a means of crushing competitors and consolidating their political and economic power (in some cases, drawing monopoly profits).
I do not believe that one day the people will wake up and embrace libertarianism. I am extremely pessimistic about the future of global politics and I do not believe that current social or cultural conditions favor the establishment of a libertarian politics.
What is outside the ordinary course of experience and events is that the state can be used in any way that fundamentally benefits the "common good": it is an institution that has evolved over time that can only benefit some interests (those who are able to wield the apparatuses of political power) at the expense of other interests. Because state action serves those who are most adept at using politics as a means of achieving their goals, as Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, the more political power comes to dominate social life, the more political power will be the only power worth having---which is why "the worst get on top." The network of social welfare agencies that has arisen over the last century has largely been a way of quelling popular discontent against problems that have largely been caused by the booms and busts of monetary policy, the structural problems caused by various fiscal policies, and the expansion of the warfare state and its effect in "crowding out" peaceful commerce and trade.
What is outside the ordinary course of experience and events is to believe that somehow a "democratic socialism" can come to this country that is not molded in such a way as to preserve the essential power structures that exist while throwing a few more bones to the disenfranchised at the cost of trillions of dollars that can't be sustained---since it will necessarily choke off those who do produce goods and services and who would be taxed out of existence to support such a system. Either way, don't kid yourself: The system is rigged, and has been rigged for more than a hundred years, to structurally benefit those who are among the most privileged politico-economic interests. So I say again: Any form of "democratic socialism" that arises out of this structure will find a way of enriching those interests even more, by continuing to socialize their risks, while exponentially expanding their profits at the expense of the rest of society.
So no, I don't believe in political miracles. It would take a massive cultural change that is unlikely to occur for any society to emerge in which people deal with one another in ways that are noncoercive. I don't know how many other ways to say what I've already said, without being redundant.

I then added the following:

I've made the case for pessimism. Now here is the case for optimism. But it's not so simple.
Essentially there are two ways of looking at the world in terms of social analysis: the first posits some utopian goal that can somehow be imposed on the conditions that exist. This is a very simplistic way of looking at social change and thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek criticized it for its "nondialectical" character: that is, it paid no attention to the given context and tried to impose social change as if from an Archimedean standpoint. Marx's critique of the utopian socialists and Hayek's critique of the constructivist rationalists are parallel in this regard; utopia, after all, strictly translated, means "nowhere."
The second way of looking at social change is to view it radically, or "dialectically": that is, taking into account the conditions that exist as the context from which any possible solution might emerge. One must understand these conditions by studying them in all their complex interrelationships within a larger system that has developed over time and that continues to develop. Just as we can trace where we came from by looking at where we are, so too can we attempt to project what real possibilities for social change exist by comprehending the context that has shaped current conditions.
So, yes, I do believe that there is a possible solution: but it is a long-term one, and it involves changing the underlying culture. That would take several generations and a massive shift in thinking or, more precisely, in how to think about the nature of social change.
In terms of practical things that can be done now, it might involve the development of "parallel institutions"; to this extent, libertarians can learn a lot from the Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who himself warned that a Marxist "state" could not usher in a better society until all the institutions of civil society had been changed fundamentally, involving a shift in cultural attitudes, education, pedagogy, and so forth, which would support the kind of political change that he, as a Marxist, envisioned. (Some would say that the left's dominance of educational and cultural institutions has already laid the basis for the kind of change that Gramsci embraced.)
To this extent, as Ayn Rand once said, "Those who fight for the future live in it today." As libertarians, we can try to work within the system by milking its inner contradictions, while also working outside the system, to develop alternative institutional means that undermine the current political and economic structures. But ultimately, it is a massive cultural shift that will be required if one wishes to change a society radically, that is, by "going to the root." Revolutions are possible. They have happened. They are real. But none of us wants to simply change the slate of bosses; those who are libertarians aim to shift the whole dynamic of power such that coercion is not the fundamental means by which human beings relate to one another.
Hence, the institutions that would have to "wither away" could not do so in the absence of this kind of fundamental, radical shift. It took over a hundred years to produce the welfare-warfare state; it might take another hundred years to dismantle it. The power of ideology lies not in its projection of a utopian future or in its imposition of a utopian goal (with all the dystopian consequences such an imposition would entail), but in its commitment to radical change that emerges from a fundamental understanding of the real conditions that exist. Understanding these conditions, how they interrelate, how they work---is the first step toward undermining them.
That's about the best I can offer you as an answer, which would at least allow us to drop those placards proclaiming "The End is Near."

On November 6, the Day of Midterm Madness (Election Day), I responded to readers who had questions about how to get "from here to there":

[I have been] trying to present a short-run versus a long-run view of how things could/might happen. Power is held by many groups, including those who have a stake in the bureaucracy that perpetuates it, and the reason it is so difficult to alter such power is because whole groups of people have a vested interest in holding onto it, and will do virtually anything to keep it. And they often have the means (and the guns) to do it.
If I had a step-by-step manual on how to get from here-to-there, I would have published it a long time ago and become a best-selling author. Instead, I have presented at least two fundamentally different ways of thinking about how to get from here to there, and I have rejected one of them as fundamentally utopian. Unfortunately, that utopian (or dystopian) pattern---of simply trying to impose solutions on societies as if they have no systemic or historical context---has been tried across the world with literally bloody intended (and unintended) consequences, over and over again.
I must admit a certain fondness for the practical strategies outlined by Gene Sharp, author of numerous books on the effectiveness of nonviolent opposition to power and its ways of de-legitimizing current institutions and undermining them (I recommend especially his work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action).
Now, as to how far away we are from getting from here to there, I'd say in some respects you're correct---that we may be further away from such a goal today than we were thirty years ago---precisely because we are often dealing with a larger population that has been cognitively stunted in its ability to think about things in an integrated fashion. As technologically savvy as the general population is, the ability to write (and "think") in 160 characters per text is something that does not lend itself to analytical depth.
On this point, Rand had some interesting things to say about "The Comprachicos" in today's educational institutions, whose pedagogical methods militate against integrated thinking and who mold too many minds into obeying authority. One excellent book about how this process works was published in 2017, a transcription of lectures by Barbara Branden entitled, Think as If Your Life Depends On It: Principles of Efficient Thinking and Other Lectures. Branden presents a fine overview of the kind of dialectical (that is, contextual) techniques that are necessary to radical theorizing. (And I promote this book not just because I wrote the foreword to it.)
I agree [with Wyatt Storch] that there is at least a potentially revolutionary implication to the technological changes we have witnessed: There is an upside to this technological age, though I say this with a big caveat: Because so many folks have so much access to social media, there is a democratizing effect on the spread of information, and hence more opportunities to undermine the Establishment's "narrative." But there is also a democratizing effect on the spread of dis-information. Sorting this out is something made all the more difficult when you factor in interests who purposely spread dis-information and who hack into the net in ways that are meant to disarm, disinform, and disrupt.
While I don't have the "How To Get From Here To There" manual on hand, I will do a little more promotion with regards to another book that I am coediting with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins, which will be published by Lexington Books in 2019-2020, entitled The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom." It brings together the work of nearly twenty high-profile authors who write in the libertarian/classical liberal tradition and presents a variety of perspectives that have important strategic implications for the "here-to-there" problem. I'll have more to say about this when the book is published.

On another thread initiated by Anoop Verma (but on a related note to much of what has been discussed above), the question at hand was: "What will be the verdict of the intellectual historians, who are living more than 100 or 150 years from today, on the twentieth century?" and my answer was:

The twentieth century gave us the worst atrocities in the history of humankind: two World Wars, the rise of totalitarianism and various other forms of statism, a Cold War and the consequent rise of fanatical terrorism, that in toto probably brought about the deaths of around 180 to 200 million people. It also gave us the technology for weapons of mass destruction that could wipe out the rest of the human race. That makes it the blackest century in history.
But it also gave us the hopes of a technology used for peace, the rebirth of the freedom movement (no matter how small it still is), and some terrific cultural milestones---from the development of radio, film, and television to the triumph of film scores and the evolution of such American art forms as jazz, the Great American songbook, and Broadway, not to mention some of the greatest moments in the history of sports. Which goes to show you that despite War and Depression, the human spirit lived on.

On November 10, 2018, I added a link to an essay by my long-time colleague and friend, Barry Vacker, who has contributed a controversial, thought-provoking piece to Medium, "Texas vs. the World: Cruz, Beto, and Planetary Civilization in the Lone Star State" that is worth a read.

August 29, 2018

The Dialectics of Liberty: A Forthcoming Collection

I am honored to announce that our contract with Lexington Books, a subsidiary of Rowman & Littlefield, has been signed, sealed, and delivered [Hat Tip to Stevie! YouTube link] and that a superb new collection entitled The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom will be published in 2019-2020.

The book, co-edited by Roger E. Bissell, Edward W. Younkins, and yours truly, features the contributions of eighteen extraordinary scholars in fields as diverse as aesthetics, business, economics, higher education, history, the humanities, law, philosophy, politics, psychology, and social theory. Despite spirited disagreements among them, and the diversity of perspectives represented, all of our authors work under the Big Tent that is "dialectical libertarianism"---a form of social analysis that seeks to understand the larger dynamic and systemic context within which freedom is nourished and sustained.

The homepage we have developed is sparse right now, because we are in the process of collecting, editing, and organizing essays from our contributors and integrating them into an organic unity; in other words, you might say that the very creation of this trailblazing volume will be an unfolding dialectical process---so, for now, we are purposely not providing a list of our contributors. That will come in time; indeed, very soon, we'll unveil our stellar cast of authors.

But the news of the book's acceptance for publication was just too wonderful not to share with you. I look forward to filling in the blanks very soon. But most importantly, I look forward to the publication of the volume itself.

And speaking only for myself, as a person who felt as if his was the voice of one crying in the wilderness over the past forty years, in championing the very notion of a "dialectical libertarianism" with my "Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy" (Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism), I have immense personal satisfaction in having played a part in bringing together this remarkable group of contributors from whom I've learned so much---and who have honored us with their presence in what promises to be one of the most important and provocative contributions to the scholarly literature of its generation.

July 30, 2018

Rothbard, Rand, and Revisionism

Very soon I hope to provide some information on some important resources that will be made available to scholars of the work of Murray Rothbard, thanks to my preservation of them for nearly 40 years.

However, a recent discussion on Rothbard has broken out, especially with regard to his contentious relationship with the inner circle of Ayn Rand, on the FB site of "For the New Intellectual" and I just wanted to bring together, in a single Notablog entry, the various comments I made about Rothbard, especially in light of that forthcoming announcement. I observed that I was

second to none in criticisms of Murray Rothbard; Part Two of Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism criticizes him especially for the context-dropping that is inherent in his dualistic view of the triumph of anarcho-capitalism as a panacea for society's ills. But my book also praises his highly dialectical (read: context-sensitive) analyses of the boom-bust cycle, the incestuous relationship of the state and banking, and the class conflicts that arise under a political economy of statism, as well as the emergence of the welfare-warfare state from the Progressive era, and so forth.
But it should be noted that when so few came to Rand's defense in the time after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, it was Murray Rothbard who wrote a rousing endorsement of the book in the magazine Commonweal. In Barbara Branden's Passion of Ayn Rand, he would later state that he was "in agreement basically with all her philosophy," and that it was Rand who convinced him of the theory of natural rights that his books would champion.
But there are such things as deep personality clashes and there was a lot of bad blood between Rothbard and Rand when their circles came into contact with one another. Rothbard headed the "Circle Bastiat" which had some intellectual fireworks with Rand's Collective: in the end, Bastiat "members" Robert Hessen and George Reisman hitched up with Rand, while Leonard Liggio, Ralph Raico, and others stayed with Rothbard.
But I don't think it can be denied that Rothbard was a remarkable intellect; his Man, Economy, and State and Power and Market are brilliant re-statements and extensions of the insights of Ludwig von Mises; his various historical works, from his four-volume work, Conceived in Liberty, to The Panic of 1819 to America's Great Depression and a recent collection of his essays on The Progressive Era were path-breaking studies. And his essays in A New History of Leviathan, which he coedited with, then "Democratic Socialist" (now, neoconservative) Ronald Radosh, is one of the great classics of revisionist history. Add to that his two-volume work on The History of Economic Thought, works on The Mystery of Banking, and so many other books---and it is simply hard to dismiss his work as unoriginal or unserious . . .
I also should acknowledge that [Rothbard] was an important figure in my intellectual evolution on "How I Became a Libertarian."
I think Rothbard was imperfect; I have criticized him even in his later years, when he attempted to correct for the obvious hole in his strategy to achieve libertarianism. When he finally recognized the role of culture in the fight for liberty, what he embraced was a kind of social conservatism that, to me, was anathema to the achievement of freedom.
But I don't think he was a nihilist looking to make a name for himself; he was just as much an outsider as Rand. To focus on minor comments he made when Patrick Buchanan was running for President and to dismiss his entire corpus because of it does seem to lose a sense of proportion. It would be like somebody fixating on Rand's idealized picture of William Hickman, using it as the pretext for dismissing everything she later wrote because she seemed to be celebrating a serial killer.
For the record, Rothbard talked much about the importance of the relationship between science and ethics; when folks argued that the state could do things better than the market and that all we needed were those who adhered to more efficient "scientific" policies of state planning, he remarked famously that there was a high-IQ high-culture Western European nation that once embraced more efficient "scientific" policies of exterminating millions of people in gas chambers and that it should not be our goal to have I.G. Farben help the Nazi Germany's of this world to come up with more effective means of mass destruction. I don't think this amounted to denial of the Holocaust at all.
And while I disagree with some of Rothbard's revisionist historical work, I think most of it is spot on: it is eminently clear that it was big business that worked toward destroying the free market by lobbying for and helping to create the entire regulatory apparatus, which they used to destroy entry into whole fields of economic endeavor and to consolidate their profits; I think his view of the rise of "war collectivism" in World War I was key to our understanding of the roots of the creation of the New Deal, which even Mussolini applauded for its corporatist ideal. You don't have to accept all his conclusions to appreciate some of his contributions.

In another post, I acknowledge that Rothbard's personal biases became the basis of raging interpersonal wars even among those in libertarian circles. But for Objectivists to point to this as proof that he was off his rocker is a bit like: Pot. Kettle. Black. The same stuff has happened within Objectivist circles for eons, and Rand's behavior was not exemplary at all times and in all cases. But that doesn't mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater. I also acknowledge my disagreements with Rothbard on such subjects as Gandhi and the strategic use of nonviolence, mentioning that no single theorist has done more for that area of study than the late Gene Sharp, who was a friend and colleague. Check out especially his book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action and his many works on Gandhi's political strategies. But the charges that Murray Rothbard was enamored by folks connected to the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review led me to post further on the charges of Rothbard's alleged "anti-Semitism":

I knew Rothbard personally; to my knowledge, his later attraction to some of the ideas in Charles Murray's book ("The Bell Curve") is ironic (in the context of any alleged anti-Semitism), especially since Charles Murray talks so much about the high IQs and cultural commitments to learning among Jews.
It was not so controversial to observe, as Rothbard certainly did, that many Jews were among the intelligentsia of the left. But considering that Rothbard himself was Jewish, as was his mentor Ludwig von Mises, his Austrian colleagues Israel Kirzner and Fritz Machlup, among others, the idea that he was a supporter of anti-Semitism sounds a bit strange to me. For God's sake, the Nazis drove Mises out of Europe and confiscated his library---which they preserved and which, ironically, ended up in the hands of the Soviets, when the secret police recovered the library of a Jewish free-market economist and preserved it under Stalin's directives (See here.) They were later recovered with the help of Richard Ebeling.
Even Rothbard's admiration for some of the work of Harry Elmer Barnes had nothing to do with any Holocaust denial. It was because Barnes correctly characterized America's political economy as one based on "perpetual war for perpetual peace." This was an argument that one could find among revisionist thinkers of the Old Right (John T. Flynn, Isabel Paterson, Albert Jay Nock, and incidentally, Ayn Rand, who opposed U.S. entry into World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam**) and the New Left (Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein, William Appleman Williams, Ronald Radosh), and even President Dwight David Eisenhower who, in his farewell address to the American people warned of the growing and destructive power and influence of the "military-industrial complex."
I don't know how Donald Trump's foreign policies will ultimately pan out---but this is certainly a guy who stirred enormous controversy with his statements that the U.S. hasn't been "so innocent" in its policies abroad and who has assailed U.S. intelligence agencies, which have corrupted more elections and toppled more regimes abroad than one can count. So I find it odd that [some] Trump-supporter[s] can be so upset with Rothbard, given Trump's own expressed views of the corrupting influences of U.S. policies at home and abroad. I may not be a Trump supporter, but at least his campaign rhetoric to pull back U.S. intervention abroad was, to me, the only thing that I could genuinely applaud. I guess that makes him as revisionist as the America Firsters of the Old Right and the antiwar New Left---the same folks that Rothbard interacted with over his many years of intellectual life.

In a later post, somebody presented anecdotal evidence of somebody else who had a conversation with Rothbard, in which he showed skepticism about the Holocaust. I replied:

Unfortunately, this is also too anecdotal for evidence. I read virtually everything Rothbard ever wrote in preparation for Total Freedom and I have never come across a single published statement that doubted the Holocaust. But there is this classic statement of his from a Free Market essay, "The 'Partnership' of Government and Business":
"In our enthusiasm for privatization, . . . we should stop and think whether we would want certain government functions to be privatized, to be conducted efficiently. Would it really have been better, for example, if the Nazis had farmed out Auschwitz or Belsen to Krupp or I. G. Farben?"
Does this read like the works of a man who denied the existence of the Nazi concentration camps or the producers of the Zyklon-B insecticide that was used to gas millions of people? Not to me it doesn't.

I received some criticism from readers who argued that Murray Rothbard wasn't a very nice guy and that he did things that were not above board, especially in his dealings with Rand, Branden, and others in the Objectivist movement. I replied:

The whole point of the second (and bulkiest) part of my book, "Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism" was to separate what I believed was the dialectical (radical) wheat from the nondialectical (utopian) chaff that formed Rothbard's theoretical worldview. One cannot engage in a study of that worldview without having read it. And what emerged, I think, was a powerful critique that kept what was valuable, tossed what was not, and moved on, in its final chapter, to discuss promising future trends in libertarian scholarship that would avoid the pitfalls of utopian thought in Rothbard and in the works of other libertarians ("utopia" after all, means "nowhere") while moving libertarian social theory to the next, far more radical, far more "dialectical" level.
To be clear, my entire trilogy ("Marx, Hayek, and Utopia", "Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical," and "Total Freedom") has been based on the assumption that there is this distinction between utopian and radical thinking, and that utopian thinking---whether it be right or left---leads us down a road to "nowhere", sometimes a very destructive "nowhere", while the more dialectical alternative will provide us with the analytical tools to understand the "root" of social problems (the essence of radical theory) as a means of resolving them.
On that score, Rothbard's works offer us a mixed bag, but that which is valuable, in my view, cannot be denied. This is quite apart from what he was or wasn't as a human being. Karl Marx, as some studies of his personal life have revealed, may not have been that nice of a guy, but I learned a lot by reading him and understanding him. "Take what you want and pay for it," as the Objectivists used to say; precisely what I've done: taken what I have thought of value, from every thinker I've read, giving credit where credit is do, and moved on.

I will have more to say about the forthcoming original resources that will soon be available to Rothbard scholars.

---
** For those who doubt Rand's opposition to U.S. involvement in the European theater of World War II, I added this note:

Check "The Roots of War" but also check out the discussions of Rand's relationship with Isabel Paterson in Stephen Cox's book The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America. It is there that Cox makes clear that both Rand and Paterson found it obscene for the United States to be sending Lend Lease aid to the Soviet Union in its fight against the Nazis; in their view, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were both evil dictatorships and should have destroyed each other. And then, if the U.S. were forced into the conflict for any reason, it would have faced a much-weakened foe. (Some of the feel of this can also be found in Rand's appearance before HUAC.)
This, of course, was all a moot point after December 7, 1941, when the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor---followed by the joint declarations of war by Germany and Italy against the United States in the days that followed thereafter. But for Rand, World War I, the "war to make the world safe for democracy" produced Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy, while World War II handed over Eastern Europe to the Soviets and led directly to an endless "Cold War" that consumed the lives of thousands of Americans in other wars to stop communist aggression and to bring "democracy" to countries that had no concept of either democracy or individual rights.
For that matter, also read what Heller has written (in Ayn Rand and the World She Knew) about Paterson and Rand ("They preferred to let Hitler march unimpeded into Russia and then enter the war against whichever dictator was left standing") and Barbara Branden's Passion of Ayn Rand, where she states that "Ayn was passionately opposed to any American involvement in the war in Europe" and "was horrified that Willkie [the candidate she supported against FDR] did not speak out unequivocally against such involvement."
And where on earth does one find in any essay Rothbard wrote about Barnes that he agreed with Barnes that the Holocaust never happened? I've written quite a bit about the contributions of Karl Marx in his application of dialectical method to social analysis. Does my "association" with Marx and Marxist scholarship imply consent to Marxist ideas? It is possible to acknowledge that there are writers in intellectual history who have provided important work without it implying that one agrees with everything the writer ever said on every subject.
My mentor was a Marxist: Bertell Ollman; he provided blurbs for each of the books of my trilogy. I was even the cofounder of a discussion group called "marxism-thaxis" (THeory and praXIS). I consider myself a "known libertarian author"---but I have openly associated myself with many on the left. What does this say about me?
I must be a closet Marxist. And here I thought I was out of the closet all along. :)
In many ways, I believe that Ayn Rand was the libertarian movement's answer to Karl Marx---using that word "libertarian" loosely. But be that as it may, do you realize how many folks in the "America First" movement were smeared as Nazi-sympathizers or anti-Semites? Well, in fact, some of them were (Charles Lindbergh was dogged by those charges for years). But Rand, Flynn, Paterson, Nock, and others were also a part of that "America First" movement. And yet, I didn't see a single one of them as having a soul shaped by the swastika.
It is no coincidence that Trump has resurrected that very phrase, "America First"---and I don't think he's a dumb man; he knows perfectly well what problems that very phrase once caused among those in the establishment. Anyway, Mike, you know I like you a lot, even with the disagreements we've had. I'm willing to just agree to disagree; I've got so much work to do, and it is to your credit for sucking me into this discussion! LOL

July 02, 2018

TDS vs. TWS: Two Sides of the Same Coin

There are a lot of folks out there who are still fighting the 2016 election: those who seem to wholeheartedly believe that Trump is Satan Incarnate and who are typically affected by "Trump Derangement Syndrome" and those who seem to believe there is nothing Trump can do wrong. Let us call this "Trump Worship Syndrome." In my view, both sides of this false alternative fundamentally misunderstand the problem. The problem is that whether Demon or Deity, no one man can alter the trajectory of the system, because the system itself is fundamentally committed to traveling down "the road to serfdom."

Ironically, this morning, I wake to a fabulous quote posted by Anoop Verma, written by Edith Efron, which goes to the core of what I'm driving at. It speaks implicitly to the need to think dialectically, that is, to think in terms of understanding and changing the larger context, upon which political and economic issues depend. Here is that eloquent quote that Anoop has shared with us this morning:

[The libertarian cultist] gulps down a few books by libertarian writers, and rushes to change this society before he has understood either this society or the books. He tends to restrict himself to a shrunken conceptual repertoire. It generally consists of a one-note opposition to the evil of government intervention, and frequently this is the only aspect of social reality of which he seems to be aware. Monumentally important political, social, cultural and intellectual problems leave the cultist indifferent. He is only concerned with government misdeeds. His "thinking", consequently, is eternally out of context, and his value system flattened and hostile. His disconnection from what he often refers to as "the real world" leaves him ignorant of the workings of this society. ~ Edith Efron in Secular Fundamentalism

I know that Anoop and I have had some differences in terms of our evaluation of Trump, but I agree fundamentally with what he is trying to convey in that Efron passage. I shared the post on Facebook, and added a "tongue-in-cheek" comment: "Sounds like the makings of a 'Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy' :) "

I have often argued on the basis of what I have called a "Tri-Level Analysis of Social Relations"---that is a tri-level model of understanding how power is exercised, and, consequently, the kinds of strategies that are needed to fundamentally alter that structure of power. I used it to describe the ways in which Ayn Rand typically approached the analysis of any social problem, but it is a model that one should keep in mind whether or not one accepts Rand's analysis in any specific instance.

The Tri-Level Model of Social Relations of Power

TriLevelModel.jpg


Readers interested in a fuller explication of the model should look at Part Three of my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and throughout my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. But the approach is outlined briefly in my essay, "Dialectics and Liberty." In the context of how Rand used the model, I state in that essay:

In her examination of any social problem, Rand focused on the reciprocal connections among personal factors (Level I), that is, a person’s methods of awareness, or "psycho-epistemology," and ethics; cultural factors (Level II), that is, ideology, pedagogy, aesthetics, and language; and structural factors (Level III), that is, politics and economics. For Rand, each level of generality offers both a microcosm and a differential perspective on the growing statism of the mixed economy that was the object of her criticism. (Rand saw that system as an instance of the "New Fascism.") She traced the mutual implications and reciprocal interconnections among disparate factors, from politics and pedagogy to sex, economics, and psychology.
In terms of the implications for a dialectical-libertarian analysis, the important point here is that Rand never emphasized one level of generality or one vantage point to the exclusion of other levels or vantage points. So, for example, even when she'd focus attention on Level III---the nightmarish labyrinth of government taxes, regulations, prohibitions, and laws constraining trade---she was quick to dismiss those who thought that an attack on the state was a social panacea. In the absence of an alteration of Level I and Level II social relations, which have a powerful effect on the character of political and economic practices and institutions, a change in Level III is not likely to be sustainable. For Rand, then, just as statism exerts its nefarious influence on all the levels of human discourse, so too must freedom be understood as a multidimensional achievement.Think Russia or Iraq---where, in the absence of a culture of individualism, all the "democratic" procedural rules in the world are not likely to bring about a free society.
Much like Hayek, Rand proclaimed herself a radical "in the proper sense of the word: 'radical' means 'fundamental.'" And as a "radical for capitalism," Rand argued that "Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries."

And this is why that passage from Edith Efron's Secular Fundamentalism resonates with me.

Since we have been discussing political and economic issues on the Facebook thread to which I posted, any Level III focus must take into account all that is entailed in the "political" and the "economic" (which is why I label that level "structural"). Even if one is attempting to alter the political and economic trends in this country, these trends cannot be changed without grasping the fundamental structures that both reflect these trends and sustain them.

On the eve of celebrating Independence Day, it might be worth remembering that this was a country "conceived in liberty"; it has traveled so far away from the origins of its conception such that the actions of one man cannot possibly change the systemic and dynamic complexities of a system that has been built up over the last century, one that embraces "perpetual war for perpetual peace" and that requires several key institutions that are only the tip of the "Deep State," unresponsive to the electorate, and firmly entrenched to serve the systems they were designed to protect. Three key institutions that must be mentioned in this context are:

1. The Federal Reserve System, which sustains a "state-banking nexus" that, in its policies of boom and bust, redistributes wealth to the most politically potent debtors (the biggest of which are financiers and big businesses that depend on both inflationary policies and government assurances that they are "too big to fail");

2. A National Security State, which even President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address about the growing power of the "military-industrial complex"; and

3. A regulatory apparatus that, since the late nineteenth century, was designed and maintained to benefit the very businesses to be regulated, who have used its various tools to destroy competition and wield control over markets.

With all this in mind, I reproduce below my comments on the various threads dealing with some of the issues surrounding the Trump presidency---issues that go to the core of why a "welfare-warfare state" will not weaken, whether one believes Trump to be a Demon or a Deity.

My first Facebook musings yesterday were posted in response to an essay written by Jim Peron, which effectively dispensed with some of the more idiotic views of journalist David Brooks: "The Enemies of Individualism: Conservatism, Collectivism, and Tribalism." Brooks essentially argues that it is the "atomism" of individualism that leads to the tribalism that is now consuming our political culture. In fact, it is the exact opposite, as Peron argues. I wrote:

Just an aside, Jim: You mention Nathaniel Branden in your essay and, if I can use the phrase, Branden was among the more "dialectically"-minded thinkers within libertarianism who explicitly and completely rejected the so-called "atomism" with which individualism had been slurred. First, Branden attacked the notion that "efficacy" was some sort of Western-biased term:
. . . the need for cognitive efficacy is not the product of a particular cultural "value bias." There is no society on earth, no society even conceivable, whose members do not face the challenges of fulfilling their needs---who do not face the challenges of appropriate adaptation to nature and to the world of human beings. The idea of efficacy in this fundamental sense (which includes competence in human relationships) is not a "Western artifact." . . . We delude ourselves if we imagine there is any culture or society in which we will not have to face the challenge of making ourselves appropriate to life. (Branden, "The Power of Self-Esteem", 1992)
Branden added further:
There are a thousand respects in which we are not alone. . . . As human beings, we are linked to all other members of the human community. As living beings, we are linked to all other forms of life. As inhabitants of the universe, we are linked to everything that exists. We stand within an endless network of relationships. Separation and connectedness are polarities, with each entailing the other. (Branden, "The Psychology of Romantic Love", 1980)
If anything, Branden argued---as did Rand---it was statism and tribalism, not individualism and tribalism, that were reciprocally related to one another. I discuss the statist-tribalist connection in my essay, "Statism and Tribalism: Fraternal Twins"

I contributed an additional comment to that thread, in response to Jim's argument that Trump suffered from a typical narcissistic disorder that helped to explain his "authoritarian personality":

I agree that Trump has all the markings of a person with an authoritarian personality, but since I can't get inside that mind of his---and wouldn't dare try---I can do the next best thing: Look at his actions, and to me, there is nothing that he has done to fundamentally alter the trajectory of U.S. political economy. As an economic nationalist or neomercantilist, his "pragmatic" approach to policy is fully in keeping with how Rand described the U.S. political economy: a neofascist mixed economy, which has been rigged historically to benefit certain interests (mostly financiers and larger capital-intensive industries) at the expense of others. Moreover, I have always accepted the truth of Hayek's proposition that the more politics comes to dominate social and political life, the more political power becomes the only power worth having---which is why "the worst get on top."
Since the institutions of power---be it the Fed, the National Security State, or the regulatory apparatus---have not (and most likely cannot) be altered fundamentally in the absence of a huge cultural shift in this country, anyone who gets into a position of power (even those who profess commitment to Rand's ideas; see my essay, "The New Age of Rand? Ha!") is more likely to become a very part of the swamp they are claiming to be at odds with. And so it goes with Trump. I have absolutely no trust in him or any other politician to be a part of the solution; and as the old adage goes---if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
On the "narcissistic" aspects of Trump's personality, Jim Peron posted a provocative link, and I understand where he is coming from: all I'm saying is that ultimately, I don't have to wade into the muddy waters of anybody's mind. All I have to do is evaluate what they are doing in practice, and believe me when I tell you: That's enough for me!

A defender of Trump's policies took exception to my placing him in the "neofascist" swamp, in which virtually every politician swims, and I replied:

I think you're missing my point: The point I'm making is that it is the system that needs to be taken down. No one man, not even one with the rhetorical gifts of Ronald Reagan, who made it okay to talk about "free markets" again, and who called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire," and who stood at the Bradenburg Gate and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!", was able to do anything to stop the U.S. path down the "road to serfdom." And he actually liked the works of Hayek!
Reagan appointed a Rand acolyte, Alan Greenspan, to run the Federal Reserve System. A "Rand acolyte" would have acted to dissolve the Fed, rather than embrace its inflationary powers to create a bubble that ended in the "Great Recession." My point is that once you get into a position of power, you are a part of the system, and even though you claim to fight it, you do nothing to alter the locus of control, the "state-banking nexus" upon which the Fed generates cycles of boom and bust, the "National Security State" that even Eisenhower warned against in his farewell speech about the "military-industrial complex," and the institutions of the regulatory apparatus that were created and supported by the very businesses to be regulated, who used that apparatus to crush competition. We have ended up with a "permanent war economy"---"perpetual war for perpetual peace" as Harry Elmer Barnes once described it---and not even a President with a moral compass can dismantle it. I'm afraid that tinkering around the edges will do nothing to fundamentally alter the course of national decay. And that's why I maintain that Mr. Trump, especially in his embrace of neo-mercantilist policies of economic nationalism---even if one wishes to believe that these are actually his way of using the "art of the deal" to compel all countries to embrace "free markets" (highly doubtful)---has crawled into the swamp he seeks to drain.

I also added a note about a newly published collection of essays by Murray Rothbard that dealt with the origins of the modern U.S. political economy in the Progressive Era:

BTW, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that a new collection of essays, written years ago by the late Murray Rothbard, has been gathered in a book called The Progressive Era," with a foreword by Judge Andrew P. Napolitano. The book largely confirms your points, Jim, about the illiberal roots of Progressivism, whether it was used to further "conservative" or "liberal" state incursions into the lives of individuals. It follows the emergent history of Progressivism from the age of the railroads, the conflict between Pietists and Liturgicals, the collapse of laissez-faire politics, the rise of corporatism and of "war collectivism"---which ultimately served as a model for many of the welfare state institutions that emerged in the post-World War I era.

Since I'm likely to have more to say in the give-and-take, I'll update my commentary here, as time warrants. But before pursuing any further discussion, I might as well reproduce another comment I made on an entirely different FB thread, initiated by Aeon Skoble, where he bemoans the incivility of the dialogue on many threads, especially those devoted to current political and economic issues:

Well you don't have to convince me about the incivility of posting on public forums, which is why I shut down comments on my blog, never post on any public forums and only cross-post entries from Notablog here, where comments go out to folks who have been "friended"---and I expect that "friended" means civility, or, I'm "movin' out." Life is too short to be aggravated over that kind of incivility.

With that said, I refuse to be dragged into the TDS versus TWS boxing ring. The problems I am focused on here go far beyond the terms of the debate as framed by that false alternative.

Of course, my FB post elicited responses, and I'll devote the space below just to expanding on the comments I have already made on this topic.

On using tariffs as a response to countries that place tariffs on U.S. goods, I replied:

Even when your trading partners erect trade barriers, raising your own tariffs achieves two things: it penalizes American consumers who are forced to purchase imported goods at higher prices, and it artificially raises profits for domestic industries protected by the tariff. The "free market" is not of a bygone era---it is an era that has yet to come.
Don't take my comments to mean that I endorse NAFTA or any other government-arranged trade "deals": the U.S. government has been engaged in large-scale transfers of money to "friends" and "foes" alike, and often, what these programs require is that the money be spent to enrich U.S. producers (that has always been the basis of "foreign aid"---in essence, the global expropriation of American taxpayers to benefit U.S. producers of military hardware and other goods, who receive these funds circuitously). The whole system is rigged.
If Trump can use his "art of the deal" to try to "un-rig" the system, more power to him: But what I've been emphasizing is once you are part of the system, it is the system's dynamics that overtake the man, whether you believe him to be a Demon or a Deity.

With regard to remaining friends on Facebook, despite disagreement, I added:

Oh, for God's sake, I know that [it's okay to remain friends and disagree on issues]. None of us is perfect, and I'd be the last one not to engage in a respectful civil dialogue---or to encourage one---when I advocate something called "dialectical libertarianism", and "dialectic" had its root in the art of conversation, the art of engaging different points of view (long before I defined it as "the art of context-keeping").
If we can't disagree, in good spirit, then what's the point? Life would be very boring. And the moment we can't disagree, it will be a sign that "Time's Up"---in more than one way. I appreciate all this.

With regard to someone who remarked that I went "overboard" in my praise of Reagan and that my post went on a bit long, I responded:

[With regard to Ronald Reagan] I was only talking about the rhetorical Reagan: I think in the long run, he did shift the political culture a bit, but ultimately, the critiques of his administration offered by folks like David Stockman, are spot on. As for length: Jeez... that's to be expected from a guy who had to write three books to make one essential point.

In response to somebody who accepted the irrationality of those suffering from both TDS and TWS, but who argued that the TDS folks were far louder and numerous, I responded:

I think that the TDS folks are louder---but I think this is to be expected. When an administration is in power, it is the opposition that is always louder.
Do a mental experiment. Let's just say that Clinton was elected. Given that the electorate was practically split, do you not think that some folks who chanted "Lock Her Up" at the GOP convention would not be suffering from CDS ("Clinton Derangement Syndrome")---especially since Trump was "trumpeting" that if Clinton had won, it would only be because the election was "rigged"?
I can't offer an alternative reality, but I do suspect that if Clinton had won (and let me make one thing clear: I did not vote for Clinton OR Trump), the GOP-dominated House and Senate would have embarked on committee after committee hearing into everything from her "lost" emails to the machinations of the Clinton Foundation to reopening the Benghazi incident. And given the "Lock Her Up" sentiment among Clinton's opposition, I think we may very well have faced as divided and belligerent a dialogue as we are seeing now.

June 05, 2018

RFK Assassination: Fifty Years Ago

I was only three years old when President John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed in Dallas on November 22, 1963 [graphic YouTube link]. I was at my grandmother's house that day; she had fallen, and my mother took me in her arms and ran to the house to help out. While there, "As the World Turns" was on TV, and Walter Cronkite had interrupted the broadcast with a series of special reports about the JFK shooting in Dealy Plaza. For days thereafter, all the TV networks devoted 24-hours of coverage leading up to the funeral and burial at Arlington Cemetery. Among the shocking events that unfolded before my young eyes was to witness live, on television, the shooting of the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jr., by Jack Ruby [graphic YouTube link].

This was my introduction to the 1960s. Those who speak much today about how polarized our society is tend to suffer from a case of historical amnesia. I don't think I ever lived through a more turbulent period than that which lasted from 1963 through the mid-1970s.

By the time I was 8, I had already seen a President shot, followed by years of nightly news coverage of civil rights and antiwar protests, both violent and nonviolent, along with scenes of carnage coming from Southeast Asia and thousands of body bags of U.S. soldiers returning to American soil each week. Within a few years, there were revelations of government lies about that war coming to light from the "Pentagon Papers," followed by all the lies that could be summed up in one word: "Watergate." Trust in government institutions was at an all-time low. Sound familiar?

On April 4, 1968, I felt bewildered by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We watched as the special reports came in on television, around the time of the evening news, with regard to King's assassination [YouTube link]. That night, Robert F. Kennedy gave a famous speech about the assassination in Indianapolis, Indiana [YouTube link], as cities across the United States were lit up with riots and violence. I returned to my neighborhood school the next day; it was P.S. 215, and our principal's name was Morris H. Weiss, and we were all encouraged to talk about the events of the previous day. (By the time I had graduated from that school, it had been renamed the Morris H. Weiss School!) But I remember all-too-well, the sadness that I saw in the eyes of one of my classmates. Her name was Wanda and she was a young, bright, African American girl. She said to me: "One of your kind of people shot one of my kind of people." And I said to her: "That white guy was a bad man. Not all white people are bad. There are good and bad in every group." And she seemed to relax after I had said that. What I said wasn't as profound as the speech RFK had given, but it seemed to have had a similar effect.

Little did I know that almost two months later, to the day, Robert F. Kennedy would fall to another assassin's bullets. It was June 5, 1968, around 3:30 a.m., fifty years ago today, when the phone rang. Usually, when a phone would ring at that hour in our home, it could only be bad news. It was my Aunt Georgia, who was a late night TV watcher, back in the days when Johnny Carson was hosting "The Tonight Show" on WNBC and WCBS was showing movie after movie with something it dubbed "The Late Show" and "The Late Late Show," and so on. She told us to turn on the TV: "Robert Kennedy was shot!" [graphic YouTube link].

We turned on our black-and-white television, and what we saw was pure pandemonium [YouTube link], but I remember seeing photos of RFK laying in a pool of blood. I don't recall going to school after daylight arrived, and the following day, June 6th, was Brooklyn-Queens Day, when schools in Brooklyn and Queens were closed. And it was in the early morning hours of that day, nearly 26 hours after being mortally wounded, that Robert F. Kennedy was pronounced dead.

We watched the RFK funeral, which took place at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on June 8th, and I remember well the eulogy given by another Kennedy brother, Ted, as he spoke through his tears [YouTube link]. Ted quoted RFK's words, which were actually a paraphrase from a work of George Bernard Shaw. It is a quote etched on the side of a building in downtown Brooklyn, once belonging to the Brooklyn Paramount, taken over in 1954 by Long Island University: "Some men see things as they are, and say 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say 'Why not?'".

It was an inspiring quote to me at the time. And I suspect that with all the intense news coverage that I watched as a child, my interest in history and politics took root. It was not all doom and gloom, because I was also a kid enthralled with the space program, and the images of seeing Neil Armstrong taking his first steps upon the moon on July 20, 1969 [YouTube link], were heroic enough to make me truly realize that the things that never were, could be.

And so I mark today's fiftieth anniversary of RFK's assassination. It makes no difference if you were a fan or an opponent of his politics or the politics of other public figures who were shot down in the 1960s. I mark this date because, like other moments from that difficult time period, it was one of the defining events that shaped my own political consciousness and that of a generation to come.

March 27, 2018

Ayn Rand and the World She Knew

The title of this blog entry is a take-off on Anne Heller's biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. The reason for this will become apparent.

I've been having a conversation with a few friends, and among the issues we were discussing was why it seemed that the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand set herself up against so many on the left and the right, and burned so many bridges to folks across the political spectrum, who might have been her allies.

It is as if Rand and her acolytes created a world, a "Galt's Gulch" of their own, which became hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. Even as Rand warned against the fallacy of "thinking in a square," too many of her devoted followers have been incapable of stepping out of that box and critically engaging with the wider intellectual world.

This is not just a debate between those who have advocated a "closed system" approach, which views Rand's thought as consisting only of whatever she wrote or endorsed in her lifetime, versus those who have argued that Rand's philosophy is an open system: that is, we can agree on the fundamentals she set forth in each of the major branches of her philosophy, but that with intellectual evolution over time, there will be many additional contributions that will fill in the many gaps that were left by Rand and consistent with her fundamentals.

On this point, I've always had one major question for those on either side of the divide: Where do we draw the line as to what is "essential" or "nonessential" or "fundamental" or "not fundamental" to Objectivism?

o Her views on why a woman should not be President?
o Her views on the "disgusting" character of homosexuality and on the sexual roles played by men and women?
o Her views on Native Americans?
o Her very specific tastes in painting, sculpture, film, literature, and music?

And the list goes on and on and on. I've never quite heard a satisfactory answer to these questions. It is ironic, too, that so many advocates of the "closed system" approach almost always find a way to bracket out of that closed system the very real contributions made by both Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden---when Rand herself argued that the work of these individuals, prior to her break with them in 1968, were among "the only authentic sources of information on Objectivism."

And regardless of whether one ascribes to a "closed" or "open" system approach, what is the ultimate goal of those who claim to be Rand's intellectual progeny? To be consistent with "Objectivism" or to be consistent with reality? In one sense, the work of anybody influenced by Rand may not be consistent with "Objectivism" but consistent with a "Randian" approach to philosophy and social theory, broadly understood. To this extent, "we are all Randians now."

One thing I think is fairly clear, however: Over her lifetime, Rand definitely became more and more insulated and isolated, unwilling to engage those on the left or the right. And even though she clearly had no problem with "purges" during the days of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, today, those associated with the Ayn Rand Institute have turned such "purges" into an art form.

But I think that at least with regard to Ayn Rand, too many people on either side of the "closed" or "open" system debate tend to be extremely ahistorical in their understanding of Rand's intellectual evolution, which sheds light on why she became more isolated and less ecumenical in her approach to her perceived opponents.

I have argued in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, that, despite her claim of challenging the ideas of 2,500 years of cultural and philosophic thought, neither she nor anyone could possibly extricate themselves from the culture in which they were embedded as they came to intellectual maturity. Every thinker---every person---is of a particular time and place.

On this point, it must be understood that there was always a genuine Russian streak in Rand insofar as she was both a novelist and a philosopher. Throughout the history of the Russian literary tradition, especially during the Silver Age, when Rand was born and came to intellectual maturity, writers were almost always considered both novelists and philosophers (or at the very least advocates of a certain set of intellectual ideas), and virtually all of these writers found themselves on the outskirts of power, using literature as a means to struggle against various kinds of social oppression. Dostoevsky comes to mind and Rand, of course, was a great admirer of Dostoevsky’s methods, especially his penchant for using various characters as expressions of certain ideas.

It therefore comes as no surprise that when asked whether she was a novelist or a philosopher, Rand answered: "Both." She is also on record as saying that virtually all novelists are philosophers whether they wish to be characterized as such or not; it is just a question of whether they choose to express their philosophical ideas or assumptions explicitly or implicitly. Most, of course, were writers of implicit "mixed" premises. For Rand, the realm of ideas was inescapable for novelists. She was a master of projecting philosophical ideas in the context of fiction---a very Russian project. And like all the Russian dissident writers before her, those ideas were almost always opposed to the status quo, seeking to alter it fundamentally. In the end, Rand may not have become a full-fledged technical philosopher, but she was a fully radical social theorist, much like her Russian forebears.

Rand did say that the goal of her writing was the projection of the ideal man (and whether she meant it or not, the ideal woman as well). She realized that she had achieved at least a certain aspect of that goal in her creation of Howard Roark, the triumphant architect in The Fountainhead. But she turned to the larger social questions in Atlas Shrugged because, as she has written, there could be no projection of ideal men or ideal women without also projecting the kinds of social relations that such individuals required in order to fully flourish, to bring forth their talents and creativity in a social environment. Sociality was inescapable. Don’t be fooled by all her comments about how “society” doesn’t exist, that only individuals exist. She stated many, many times that “society” must be treated as a unit of analysis, insofar as it constituted the various social relations among individuals. These relations were expressed in organizations, institutions, and throughout civil society. So the reason she became such an unbending advocate of capitalism “the unknown ideal” was because she recognized that the fullest flowering of ideal individuals could not occur under social conditions that were anything less than free. Even in her essays on the conflict of men’s interests, she says that in a less-than-free society, conflicts are a necessary part of the kinds of social relations that both reflect and perpetuate the various forms of statism that had so distorted the character of human social interaction.

Rand may never have wanted to become a technical philosopher, but she was writing nonfiction essays early in her career and the equivalent of philosophical tracts within every novel she authored. You can find these in Anthem, We the Living, The Fountainhead, and, of course, Atlas. Her first nonfiction book, For the New Intellectual, basically extracted all of the philosophical speeches from her works of fiction to show the kinds of ideas she was projecting, even if she had not yet reached the point of full integration. But it is there, right in her novels.

So many people from so many political persuasions were attracted to aspects of her thought. Even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama admitted to having gone through a "Rand" phase. But Rand would have had none of it. Over time, she had systematically demonized conservative, liberals, libertarians, and socialists. But she once stated that her appeal was ultimately to the nontraditional conservatives and the nontotalitarian liberals. I think that as she aged, she realized there were fewer and fewer representatives of those groups.

Among conservatives, she became increasingly frustrated by the ways in which they seemed to “water down” the defense of a free society: she watched as the conservative movement, so committed to the Old Right ideas of noninterventionism both at home and abroad, morphed into a group of rabid anticommunists, hell-bent on fighting a Cold War without end, endorsing everything from military conscription and the emergence of the National Security State to fighting in wars that she opposed (from World War II to Korea and Vietnam). And then there were those conservatives who embraced the Jim Crow laws of apartheid in the South as a means of perpetuating institutional racism, which utterly disgusted her. As the years went by, and her close relationships with those among the Old Right collapsed, she witnessed how conservatives increasingly embraced a religious defense of capitalism, while she was fighting for the idea that capitalism must be defended as the only rational and moral social system (an odd parallel with those atheistic, secular leftists who fought for "scientific socialism").

As for the libertarians, I think a lot of Rand's falling out with that group was due to her experiences with folks from the Circle Bastiat (Murray Rothbard chief among them). I think she was so appalled by the idea of anarcho-capitalism (as both ahistorical and acontextual) that she ended up branding all libertarians as anarchists, something she did not do in the late 1940s and early 1950s (when she even referred to Mises as a “libertarian” and was apt to consider herself a libertarian strictly in terms of her politics). But she lived during a time when, to her, "libertarianism" was as much of a mixed bag as conservatism. And when Rothbard became Mr. Libertarian, she became increasingly hostile to a group of fellow travelers in politics (most of them advocates of limited government rather than of anarcho-capitalism). She repudiated libertarians as "hippies of the right," who then turned around and attacked her with as much ferocity as the religious and traditional conservatives.

Finally, I should add that Jeff Riggenbach has made a persuasive case that Rand had a decisive impact on those among the New Left, those he termed the “disowned children of Ayn Rand," but who were, at various points in their lives, inspired by her call to individualism and to activism (and this included an impact on the emergence of individualist feminism and the gay liberation movement). But, of course, Rand was just as adamantly opposed to the New Left as she was to the conservatives and the libertarians.

So what are we left with? We’re left with a woman who wanted very much to reach the minds of people on all ends of the political spectrum, in the hopes that she could decisively alter the trajectory of American politics. And in the end, she had made so many enemies on the left and the right that it became almost impossible for her---or any of her acolytes---to truly engage their philosophical opponents. And those opponents became so hostile to Rand that they sought to remove her from the canon as a thinker worthy only of disdain and dismissal.

Rand's acolytes have only dug-in their heels in response to such attacks, clinging to a siege mentality that cultivated isolation from the wider world. Either you were for Rand in toto or opposed; either you were among the Chosen or the Damned.

For those of us who are so inclined, I think it is essential to address those on the left and the right in a spirit of critical but respectful engagement. That has been the strategy of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. This was a woman who fought the Welfare-Warfare state, who battled on the front lines against U.S. entry into World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and who understood the institutional workings of the warfare state---as much as she fought against the regulatory state that enriched certain business interests at the expense of others and a welfare bureaucracy that became inevitable.

Rand reminded us that those who fight in the future must live in it today. She fought for that future and advocated the kinds of ideas that she believed were essential to the fundamental social change that was possible---and necessary---to the survival of the human species.

January 15, 2018

US Foreign Intervention and the Problem of "S&!#Hole" Diplomacy

President Trump has gotten a lot of flack for advocating a more "European"-based immigration policy, cutting back on the influx of immigration from "shithole" places like Haiti and Africa. He mentioned Norway as one place whose immigrants would be welcome to U.S. shores. Of course, considering that so many folks on U.S. terrorist watchlists travel to the U.S. with European visas, including all those Muslims that Trump loves, it would not be too long before he'd call for a ban on European immigration too.

But I wanted to share a link to a fine essay by Ryan McMaken on the "Mises Wire," entitled: "Now's a Great Time to Stop Meddling in Haiti." If folks want a history lesson on how some of the places the President disparages become "shitholes," this is a good primer essay.

August 22, 2017

The Trouble with Trump and with "Antifa"

Recently, I have been deeply critical of President Trump, especially with regard to his tepid response to the mini-Nuremberg-like rallies of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in places like Charlottesville, Virginia (whether they have ACLU-approved permits or not). Trump, I have argued, is becoming more and more like a typical politician, rather than the "outsider" he claimed to be; it seems to me that he is not wanting to offend some of these groups, since they were among the constituencies that voted for him. And the first goal of all elected politicians is to be re-elected; a politician can't achieve the latter by alienating core groups that were supportive of his or her election in the first place.

When all the political pundits were predicting a Clinton victory, I was predicting a Trump victory back in July 2016. I saw that he was speaking to a large swath of American voters who felt disenfranchised and disillusioned, but I was especially critical of some of the proposals he was putting forth as solutions to the economic and political problems faced by the United States. His high-tariff, protectionist agenda was certainly in keeping with the nineteenth-century roots of the Republican party, with its "pro-business" neomercantilist policies and support of banks and infrastructure (back then, especially railroad) subsidies. But I warned that Trump's proposed anti-immigration policies, which threatened to round up 11 million undocumented individuals, had all the makings of a police state in terms of its enforcement. Fortunately, though he's taken a tougher stance on immigration, I suspect that his proposals for walls and such may fall by the wayside.

And while I've been critical of the fact that Trump's hirings and firings in the Oval Office or the West Wing appear like weekly installments of "The Apprentice," it is clear that despite Republican control of both Houses of Congress, 26 governorships, and 32 state legislatures, the GOP is so fractured that it is as much a demonstration of Madisonian "checks and balances" and frustrated ambitions, as if two or more parties were vying for power, as my old NYU politics professor, the late H. Mark Roelofs spoke about in his wonderful book, Ideology and Myth in American Politics: A Critique of a National Political Mind. As I have maintained, due to "this political fragmentation, the GOP can't seem to do one fundamental thing to alter the course that this country has been on for a hundred years or more... a 'road to serfdom' paved by both Democrats and me-too Republicans . . ."

I have never been comfortable with Trump's alliance with Steve Bannon, so his departure from the White House brings no tears to my eyes. And I am not fond of the so-called "alt-right", even though its stance---and Trump's original stance---against the neoconservative foreign policy that has dominated this country for too long was a breath of fresh air. Alas, now, even Trump's noninterventionist "instincts" against unending war are at odds with his newly declared policy shift in the Middle East. No timetable has been offered for 'strategic' reasons for the end of the longest war in American history, but at least Trump retains the view that the United States should not be attempting to "rebuild" other countries in its own image. Gone is the "nation-building" agenda put forth by the neocons who ran George W. Bush's foreign policy, of which Trump was deeply and justifiably critical. But how much longer this war lasts is anyone's guess. Judging by the longevity of Islamic terrorist memory, we could be looking forward to at least a century or two more of armed conflict before any armistice.

To be clear, however, my criticisms thus far of Donald Trump's policies are not an open endorsement of what has become known as "Antifa." It is supposed to be a short-form designation of a variety of groups that are "antifascist" in their agenda. Well, I'm as antifascist as any libertarian can be; I'm also an anticommunist, an antisocialist, or in libertarian parlance: an antistatist. I do not believe that augmenting the power of the state in any way, shape, or form benefits the "common good." As I pointed out in my post on "Statism and Tribalism: Fraternal Twins," it was Hayek who noted in his Road to Serfdom that

. . . the more politics came to dominate social and economic life, the more political power became the only power worth having, which is why those most adept at using it were usually the most successful at attaining it. That's why, for Hayek, "the worst get on top." Well, I don't know if we have yet seen the worst, but one thing is clear. It is in the very nature of advancing government intervention that social fragmentation and group balkanization occurs; indeed, one might say that the rise of statism and the rise of group conflict are reciprocally related. Each depends organically on the other.

So, to be "antifascist" tells us nothing about what one is for. It is not sufficient to be "anti-" anything if one does not know what one is fighting for. When the Nazis and the Soviets signed a 1939 nonaggression pact, too many voices on the "antifa" left, who had formerly opposed Hitler, fell silent, as the Nazis and the Soviets carved up Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Romania. And when war finally came to the Soviet Union, those same voices were raised in concert for United States intervention in World War II on the side of the Soviets to defeat fascism in Europe. For the Old Right, the "America First-ers" of their time, fighting on the side of one mass murderer (Stalin) to defeat another mass murderer (Hitler) had no inherent value for the victory of human freedom. That debate was effectively ended in the wake of the events of December 7, 1941, which made it impossible to keep the United States out of a war that led to the deaths of over 60 million people and the birth of the nuclear age.

What my "instincts" tell me is this: adopting the thuggish behavior of the thugs one opposes, leads, almost inexorably, to the victory of thuggery, under whatever political guise. Perhaps those who oppose the policies of Donald Trump should study the works of Gene Sharp, founder of the Albert Einstein Institution. He is one of the foremost theoreticians of nonviolent resistance. And make no mistake about it: whether it was practiced by Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, the nonviolent techniques that Sharp has articulated in his many works are fully in keeping with the strategy of resistance. But they do not duplicate the paradigm of force that is being practiced by those whom one opposes. Inevitably, the use of coercive force by opposition groups merely replaces one form of coercion with another. It has been argued, persuasively, that "[f]rom 1966 to 1999, nonviolent civic resistance played a critical role in 50 of 67 transitions from authoritarianism." So if "Antifa" wants to show its commitment to another, "revolutionary" form of politics, it should start by renouncing violence. And if "Antifa" wants to fight effectively against any perceived authoritarian threats from the Trump administration or its supporters, it needs to take pause, for among its ranks is a collection of groups, some of whom would replace America's "neofascism" with yet another form of statist tyranny.

For the record, I want to state that I am not very optimistic about the future of individual liberty in this country. I fear that the promise of genuine freedom and individual rights is becoming a distant dream. But if you oppose those elements of Trump's policies that will undermine liberty, you gain neither freedom nor rights if you happily join hands with folks who would slit your throat in a new battle for political power, in a system where political power is the only power worth having.

Postscript: My friend Irfan Khawaja had a nice retort to my post: "I don't know about this non-violence stuff. I mean, I'm not one to cast the first stone. But the second one has its attractions...."

I responded:

I know. I just think that there are a lot of strategies within civil disobedience that can be amazingly effective. Civil disobedience is not turning the other cheek, but being disruptive in ways that can put one on the moral high ground and bring down walls of power.
But I'm also from Brooklyn. And half-Sicilian to boot (no pun intended). And the second stone can sometimes stop power in its tracks too. There are contexts where I, myself, don't see how nonviolence is a universal prescription for resistance. How, for example, does one use nonviolence as one is being led by SS guards into a gas chamber? Bombing the trains that led into Auschwitz, and massively disruptive riots in the Warsaw Ghetto can be acts of heroism too, but the Holocaust still happened. And let it be noted that 13,000 Jews died in the Warsaw uprisings, in contrast to 300 Nazis, while the vast majority of the Ghetto residents (estimated to be around 300,000+) were to die in Treblinka.
It's a tough question to answer. But there's a wonderful story told about surviving terror by literally standing up, no matter how many times you are struck. It's in the [2015] film "Bridge of Spies," a story told by the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (played by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), to attorney James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), about "Standing Man."

Jim Farmelant raised a good point with which I agreed, in general, when he said: "Violence should never be one's first resort. But it is foolish to take it off the table completely." Chris Despoudis raised another good issue, stating:

Regarding Civil Disobedience, it reminds me of Slajov Zizek's comment that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler specifically because his civil disobedience aimed directly at disrupting the existing edifices of the system totally and without backing out. I think he's correct to some degree. Non-violence works when you're opponent cannot see you as an externalized other that needs to squashed, when those who are fighting aren't willing to do terrible things for their country instead of merely great things. The issue of Germany on 1939 was not an issue of non-violence. The issue was that Germany had to be destroyed completely in order for its system to be able to be changed.

I replied:

Very interesting points; but you know, some studies have been done of the concentration camp guards at the various death factories in Germany. And it was no coincidence that so many of those who threw the victims into the gas chambers were also habitual drinkers, as if they had to numb themselves from any feelings of concscience.
One of the kernels of truth of nonviolent resistance is that at some point, the people who are victimizing you start to realize that you are a human being, and for those who have any vestige of conscience, that reality eventually takes hold, and begins to erode their own capacity to victimize you. The key to the Nazi ideology, the Nazi "social psychology," therefore, was to create a culture that saw all non-Aryans as not human; this was fatal for the victims, but it was also essential to those who would be doing the victimizing, for if you are convinced that what you are killing is not human, you will exempt your conscience from human empathy.
Obviously, for some, this did not work; alcoholism and habitual substance abuse was a way of drowning out any thoughts that the Other was human. Interestingly, Leonard Peikoff has a good chapter on this in The Ominous Parallels but one can find good studies of this throughout the post-World War II literature. And let us not forget the famous "Milgram experiment", which illustrated just how far intelligent people would go in following the orders of a superior. It showed that even highly educated folks, when ordered to do so by an "authority figure" would be drawn to inflict more and more "pain" on folks who didn't answer questions correctly (the pain inflicted was only indicated on a scale, not actual; but this fact was not known to those who were being ordered to inflict greater and greater levels of pain intensity on the actors who were playing the part of students answering incorrectly).

August 20, 2017

Statism and Tribalism: Fraternal Twins

While I've been posting songs regularly for my "Summer Dance Party," I don't want to give the impression that I'm sitting home fiddling while Rome (or Charlottesville, Virginia) burns. Nero, I am not.

I just wanted to say a few things about the conflicts we are witnessing across this country. For the record, I actually agree with President Trump on one issue: there is a lot of "fake news" out there. One example of "fake news" is that Confederate monuments were erected in the years after the Civil War exclusively to commemorate the fallen. With all due respect to those who honor the memory of the dead in that War, especially my southern neighbors, most of those monuments were erected predominantly in the era of Jim Crow and while I personally understand why Southerners mourn the loss of their relatives in the Civil War, which took the lives of more than 600,000 Americans, both Blue and Gray, I'm not convinced that all of these monuments were innocent expressions of commemoration. Some were clearly intended as symbols of intimidation during a period in which many Southern state governments maintained laws that were designed to enforce racial segregation.

I live in Brooklyn, New York, an unreconstructed libertarian American. But even here, in Brooklyn, New York, there are streets named for both Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee at the still-active army base, Fort Hamilton, where both men were stationed in the 1840s. I don't see the point in changing the names or the history of any of the streets of this fort, whose roots can be traced all the way back to the Revolutionary War. (In fact, I had my own book party back in 1995, upon the publication of Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and the first edition of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, at the Officer's Club of the celebrated fort).

There is one Civil War image that has always resonated with me, however---though its validity has been questioned. It is a symbolic story of reconciliation that occurred at Appomattox, when the Confederate forces surrendered to the Union forces, effectively ending the Civil War. The men of the Blue and the Gray had been overwhelmed with battlefields that knew no color, save one: blood red. And it is said that on that day, April 12, 1865, they departed, saluting one another, giving expression to Lincoln's maxim "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

Two days later, on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth put a bullet in Lincoln's head.

Unlike the imagery of Appomattox, the imagery coming out of Charlottesville has more in common with the events at Ford's Theatre. When I check out the Vice documentary on Charlottesville, watching White Supremacists march through that Virginia city, chanting "Jews will not replace us" and criticizing Donald Trump for not being racist enough because "he gave his daughter to a Jew . . . that [Jared] Kushner bastard", I am utterly disgusted. Any administration that earns even a modicum of respect from these folks is already running out of time.

Nevertheless, why should any of this surprise us? After years of witnessing the identity, tribalist politics of the left, we're now seeing an administration that is clearly emboldening the identity, tribalist politics of the right.

Friedrich Hayek once wrote, in The Road to Serfdom that the more politics came to dominate social and economic life, the more political power became the only power worth having, which is why those most adept at using it were usually the most successful at attaining it. That's why, for Hayek, "the worst get on top." Well, I don't know if we have yet seen the worst, but one thing is clear. It is in the very nature of advancing government intervention that social fragmentation and group balkanization occurs; indeed, one might say that the rise of statism and the rise of group conflict are reciprocally related. Each depends organically on the other.

Few thinkers understood this dynamic better than Ayn Rand. As I wrote in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical:

Rand argued that the relationship between statism and tribalism was reciprocal. The tribal premise was the ideological and existential root of statism. Statism had arisen out of "prehistorical tribal warfare." Once established, it institutionalized its own racist subcategories and castes in order to sustain its rule. The perpetuation of racial hatred provided the state with a necessary tool for its political domination. Statists frequently scapegoated racial and ethnic groups in order to deflect popular disaffection with deteriorating social conditions. But if tribalism was a precondition of statism, statism was a reciprocally related cause. Racism had to be implemented politically before it could engulf an entire society: "The political cause of tribalism's rebirth is the mixed economy---the transitional stage of the formerly civilized countries of the West on their way to the political level from which the rest of the world has never emerged: the level of permanent tribal warfare."

Ever the dialectician, capable of seeing the larger context, Rand was adamant about this reciprocally reinforcing relationship. Indeed, "she maintained that every discernable group was affected by statist intervention, not just every economic interest. Every differentiating characteristic among human beings becomes a tool for pressure-group jockeying: age, sex, sexual orientation, social status, religion, nationality, and race. Statism splinters society 'into warring tribes.' The statist legal machinery pits 'ethnic minorities against the majority, the young against the old, the old against the middle, women against men, welfare-recipient against the self-supporting.'" Ultimately, the emergent

mixed economy had splintered the country into warring pressure groups. Under such conditions of social fragmentation, any individual who lacks a group affiliation is put at a disadvantage in the political process. Since race is the simplest category of collective association, most individuals are driven to racial identification out of self-defense. Just as the mixed economy manufactured pressure groups, so too did it manufacture racism. And just as the domestic mixed economy made racism inevitable, so too did the global spread of statism. Rand saw the world fracturing into hostile ethnic tribes with each group aiming to destroy its ethnic rivals in primitive conflicts over cultural, religious, and linguistic differences. Rand called the process one of "global balkanization."

The fabric of this country has been unraveling for years. Advancing statism both depends upon and emboldens the tribalism, inter-group warfare, and "identity politics" on all sides of the political divide.

The Trump administration is neither the cause nor the solution to the problem; it is yet one more sign of how the chickens are coming home to roost. All we can hope for is that open Civil War remains off the table, for the stakes are too great for the survival of life, liberty, and property. And no matter what the color or identity of the victims, the battlefields will still run blood red.

Postscript: My comments here generated some response. For example, on Facebook, Wyatt Storch claims: "You're drinking from the same cesspool you're complaining about the smell of. The idea that the policy and actions of the government of the U.S. should be guided by the goal of not getting praised by some obscure group of idiots is absurd and insupportable. Check your premises." And Anoop Verma makes the fair point that "we can only judge Trump on the basis of the success of failure of his economic agenda. If he passes tax cuts and healthcare reform, then he will be judged fairly by history, and do a great favor on not just US but the entire world (because if the reforms succeed in US then there will be reforms in Asian countries too). If not, then we will see..."

I responded:

I'm simply stating a fact: [Trump is] earning the respect of groups that I do not wish to associate with. And in any event, no conservative, and no pragmatist--such as Trump--is in any way, shape, or form, an advocate of the free market. They are all apologists for the status quo no matter how much they claim to oppose it. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we will grasp that nothing is going to change fundamentally under Trump, or anyone else for that matter.
The statist mixed economy is so entrenched--from the "Deep State" of the National Security apparatus to the Fed's control over money--that no individual is capable of altering it.

To which Wyatt responded: "Chris, I understand your point. But that statement is absurd and insupportable. You should take it back. Else because your article didn't disavow cannibalism, if some cannibal approves your article, then it reflects badly on you, would be the ad absurdum analogy."

Responding to both Anoop and Wyatt, I added:

All agreed, but right now, it's not very promising. [Trump] can't even run the Oval Office or the West Wing without it appearing like a weekly installment of "The Apprentice" and he has a fractured Republican party that, though in control of both Houses of Congress, 26 governships, and 32 state legislatures, can't seem to do one fundamental thing to alter the course that this country has been on for a hundred years or more... a "road to serfdom" paved by both Democrats and me-too Republicans, which is why Rand repudiated the conservatives so fervently.

I added:

For the record, I predicted Trump would win way back in July 2016; I was not a Clinton supporter, and I did not vote for either major candidate. But I expressed my reservations about Trump's political project back then; I am still reserving judgment on where this administration is going, but I'm not encouraged. Here is what I said back in July: "The Donald and Mercer's 'Trump Revolution'."

Wyatt admitted that we disagreed on very little, but warned me against the "histrionics" of the blood-in-the-streets metaphor that I used in this post. To which I responded:

To which I will say: From your lips to God's ears (whether or not one believes in a deity). As a student of the Holocaust, who actually took the first course offered on the subject for high school students (by my teacher Ira Zornberg), I get the willies anytime I see a bunch of neo-Nazis chanting anti-Semitic slogans. What started as laughable brown-shirted rallies during the Weimer Republic became one of the worst catastrophes in human history. Indeed: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." And that vigilance must be maintained against both leftist and rightist hooligans.

Wyatt replied: "OK, so you're triggered and you have an excuse for hysteria. Thanks for the confession." To which I replied:

I just think it's called being aware of one's surroundings; I'm not hysterical, but I'm not going to put blinders on. . . . I have had cannibals write nice things about my blog, and I've also had cannibals write lousy things about my blog. I could not care less what the cannibals say either way; I'm just calling it as I see it. I don't like hooligans or tribalists of any kind, and if the shoe fits, they should be called out on it. The only problem is that the left has typically been blind to its own hooligans, while pointing fingers at the right, and vice versa.
I will hold onto your optimism that nobody has the balls to do anything more stupid than they have already.

Wyatt added that I should simply retract my statement that seems to "back-paint immorality" from the neo-Nazis to the Trump administration. To which I responded:

But I stand by that statement; Trump is not distancing himself enough from the cannibals. To this extent, he is becoming a politician, because he knows that a certain constituency of disaffected, disenfranchised white folks voted for him, and he is not going to alienate them when he needs their support.
And I don't take your comments as a personal attack. I'm just concerned that the administration is not being vigilant enough about the thuggery that exists among some of its supporters. To that extent, yes, he is running out of time. It's not even a question of back-painting their immorality to him; it's that he will be stained by their immorality in terms of public perception, and it will undermine any good that he may have been able to achieve (at least from the standpoint of those things that I could support, like his original intent for a less-interventionist foreign policy, etc.)

I added:

I'm not reading his mind, Wyatt; I'm just looking at his actions. He's starting to look more and more like a politician to me. Time will tell.
And no, I do not believe that he is a secret Nazi; I think he is a full-on pragmatist who has tapped into legitimate fears and offered some awful solutions (like high tariffs, protectionism, building walls, amping up the War on Drugs, and now, even back-tracking on the promises of a less-interventionist foreign policy).
As for Rand: Anoop, you are correct. We should not judge Rand based on those who praise or reject her. But I've spent an awful lot of time on Notablog for years having to defend her precisely on those issues, most recently by those who implied that just because a few Rand fans were in Trump's administration, we should be prepared for a "New Age of Rand". Hogwash.

I added another note about the subject in the Facebook thread:

Wyatt, let's take Ayn Rand as an example. She wasn't a politician, to say the least; she was certainly uncompromising. She missed no opportunity whatsoever in making it very clear who she supported as well as those whose support she didn't want. She denounced folks that at times praised some of her writings, and that included everyone from William F. Buckley (who thought The Fountainhead had its moments of sublime beauty) to Ronald Reagan. She dissociated herself from conservatives and from libertarians, whom she called "hippies of the right"; she pulled no punches in telling folks that she repudiated various individuals and movements that claimed her as an influence.
Trump came in as an outsider, not a politician, or so he claimed. He certainly had no trouble using various phrases, like "Islamic terrorists", to describe people who fit the bill.
But it was like pulling teeth to get him to denounce the neo-Nazis, the White Supremacists, and the KKKish thugs who were carrying torches through the streets of Charlottesville, like they were a bunch of brownshirts. Perhaps the man should put the freaking Twitter down for a moment, stop focusing on attacking every little slight that has been thrown his way by anybody anywhere, and call out these Nazi pigs for what they are.
I'm not calling him Hitler, I am not calling him a full-fledged fascist (not yet, at least)--though the system he heads remains the same "neofascist" one that Rand condemned. I'm just saying that he seems to be less enthusiastic about dissociating himself from these white nationalists and white supremacists. And I think the reason he is less enthusiastic is because his pragmatist approach is now geared toward the same goal that all politicians seek: getting re-elected and retaining power.
That is just the nature of politics. His response to these folks has been tepid, at best, because he knows that they are among the constituencies that heavily supported him, and they are a part of a disaffected constituency that he needs to maintain if he wants to be re-elected. He is fully a politician now; he is part of the very system he condemned.
And as I pointed out in my "New Age of Rand" essay, even among the most enthusiastic of Rand acolytes, even a man who was part of Rand's inner circle, who once favored the abolition of the Fed---like Alan Greenspan---becomes corrupted once he becomes a part of the system, indeed, part of the very Fed he sought to extinguish. And he used all the levers of power to bring forth an inflationary expansion and housing bubble that was bound to burst; and in the end, it was the so-called "free-market" that took the blame, not state intervention.
Trump has a long way to go to prove that he can drain the swamp; right now, in my view, he's swimming in it.
Well, he already did one good thing: He threw Bannon out on his ass.

May 29, 2017

Rothbard's Impact on "How I Became a Libertarian"

On a day when I memorialize those who fought and put their lives on the line during times of war (like my Uncle Sam), I also remember those who dreamt of a world without war, whatever differences of opinion I may have had with them. Among these was the Austrian economist and libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard, who had a huge impact on how I became a libertarian. I wrote on a Facebook thread:

All I know is that Murray Rothbard had an immense impact on me personally and on the libertarian movement generally; his scholarship---from his multivolume Conceived in Liberty and his work on The Panic of 1819 and America's Great Depression to his mammoth Man, Economy, and State and Power and Market and his Ethics of Liberty and his polemical For a New Liberty---is remarkable in its breadth; and his work on Left and Right certainly made its mark. I own a copy of A New History of Leviathan, a work he coedited with Ronald Radosh, and therein are terrific essays coming from revisionist historians among the new left and the libertarian right (including Rothbard and the great libertarian historian Leonard Liggio). [In fact, my own copy of that wonderful volume is inscribed by both Radosh, who wrote "Towards democratic socialism!" on one page and Rothbard, who wrote "For liberty and anti-Leviathan" on the next page!]
It was Rothbard who introduced me to the trailblazing work being done by folks like Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein on the new left (especially their valuable revisionist scholarship on the Progressive era) and Walter Grinder and John Hagel on the libertarian right. My mentor, Bertell Ollman, a Marxist political theorist, praised Rothbard, despite their disagreements, for the depth of his scholarship and the principled stances he took against the Vietnam War, when they worked together in the Peace and Freedom Party. (And Ollman was no stranger to libertarian and classical liberal thinking; he was actually a Volker fellow who worked personally under Friedrich Hayek at the University of Chicago.)
Whatever flaws Rothbard had (and who doesn't have their blindspots?), he was a huge presence in the emergence of modern libertarianism and was among the folks who were part of my own journey of "How I Became a Libertarian" (now a part of the volume I Chose Liberty: Autobiographies of Contemporary Libertarians).

May 23, 2017

Song of the Day #1455

Song of the Day: Moonraker ("Main Title"), lyrics by Hal David, music by John Barry, was the theme to the 1979 James Bond film, starring Roger Moore, who passed away today at the age of 89. Sean Connery remains my favorite Bond, but Moore had his moments. This song was the third Bond theme sung by Shirley Bassey, who had previously recorded the vocal themes to "Diamonds are Forever" and, most famously, "Goldfinger" [YouTube links]. Bassey provides different renditions of the song at the film's opening and the more upbeat end credits [YouTube links]. RIP, Roger Moore; and my deepest condolences to those of his fellow Brits, who are mourning today the deaths of those attending an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, victims of a shameful act of terror.

November 23, 2016

George Smith on Rand's Insights on the U.S. "Slide Toward Fascism"

Just wanted to alert readers to a fine article penned by George Smith, "Ayn Rand Predicted an American Slide Toward Fascism" on the FEE website.

I was especially happy to see this discussion resurrected since Rand herself has often been tagged by her detractors as a "fascist"; my own essays on Rand's insights into the U.S. tendencies toward neofascism ("The New Fascism," as she called it) are indexed here. The discussion is particularly important in the days since the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Following Rand and others in the libertarian tradition, I've argued that the system of "crony capitalism" or what Roy Childs and others once called "liberal corporativism," is the system that exists in this country; it is not a free market and whether it is peppered with the authoritarian rhethoric (and policies) of the left or of the right, it all comes down to a civil war of pressure groups, each vying for special privileges at the expense of one another, a "class" warfare that not even Karl Marx could have imagined. For as F. A. Hayek so powerfully observed, once political power becomes the central means of gaining social control, it becomes the only power worth having. That is why he argued, in The Road to Serfdom, "the worst get on top." I've expressed my concerns for months now, but it remains to be seen just how much worse this tendency will be manifested in the new administration. Whatever the campaign rhetoric, time will tell. (Ed: And I am reminded by a colleague that in a country where, within a single week, the Chicago Cubs can win the World Series and Donald J. Trump can win the White House, anything is possible!)

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States; I want to wish all my readers a Happy Thanksgiving [YouTube link]. Be thankful that, for now, at least in some crucial aspects, this country remains, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "a republic, if you can keep it." Which makes Rand's insights into the degeneration of the American republic all the more trenchant.

September 11, 2016

WTC Remembrance: Fifteen Years Ago - Through the Looking Glass of a Video Time Machine

My annual series, "Remembering the World Trade Center," turns this year to my own personal reflections on the fifteenth anniversary of the day that my hometown was attacked in 2001, a day that changed our lives forever. These reflections emerge from my viewing of a series of VHS tapes that I used to record the tragic events of that day and the days, weeks, and months that followed. My focus for this essay is exclusively on the unfolding minute-by-minute television coverage from 8:46 a.m. to midnight on the day of terror that we commemorate today.

I have to admit that this essay was one of the most difficult, and yet cathartic, pieces I've ever written in my entire life. I invite readers to view the newest addition to my annual series here.

I also provide this index for those readers who would like easy access to the previous entries in this series:

2001: As It Happened . . .

2002: New York, New York

2003: Remembering the World Trade Center: A Tribute

2004: My Friend Ray

2005: Patrick Burke, Educator

2006: Cousin Scott

2007: Charlie: To Build and Rebuild

2008: Eddie Mecner, Firefighter

2009: Lenny: Losses and Loves

2010: Tim Drinan, Student

2011: Ten Years Later

2012: A Memorial for the Ages: A Pictorial

2013: My Friend Matthew: A 9/11 Baby of a Different Stripe

2014: A Museum for the Ages: A Pictorial

2015: A New One World Trade Center Rises From the Ashes: A Pictorial

2016: Fifteen Years Ago: Through the Looking Glass of a Video Time Machine


Never forget.

Postscript: Much appreciation to Ilana Mercer, who has noted the newest essay on her blog here. She writes:

I recall calling Chris Matthew Sciabarra around the time September 11 happened. Like the best of New York, Chris was hyper, in fight-but-never-flight mode. That’s my Chris. And he has commemorated the attack on the greatest city in the world—was I overcome by patriotism when I visited New York!—his hometown, in the most personal way each year.

Postscript 2: Much appreciation to Rational Review News Digest for making this the lead commentary in their September 11th edition. See here. Special thanks to long-time colleague and friend Thomas L. Knapp for noticing.

August 17, 2016

Ayn Rand, David Cross, and Hypocrisy

Ilana Mercer recently made me aware of some off-the-wall [YouTube, sorry, couldn't resist MJ] comments by stand-up comedian David Cross on Ayn Rand. I'll just have to chalk up his, uh, misunderstanding to the fact that he's a comedian, and not somebody who has actually studied Rand's corpus. On his new Netflix special, he makes the following statement:

"Let's be honest, that's what makes America weak, is empathy. When we care about those less fortunate than ourselves, that['s] what brings us down. . . . Ask Ayn Rand—I believe you can still find her haunting the public housing she died in while on Social Security and Medicare."

Now, it's not my intention to simply defend Ayn Rand; she did a good job of that when she was alive, and her writings have stood the test of time, whatever one thinks about her position on this or that particular issue. But Cross is just all crossed up. About so many things.

First, let's clear up one grand myth: Ayn Rand never lived in public housing. I recently queried Rand biographer, Anne Heller, who wrote the 2009 book, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Heller could provide us with every address Rand ever lived at, and not a single one of them corresponds to a public housing project. But even if Rand lived in the Marlboro Housing Projects in Brooklyn, who cares? More on this, in a moment.

Now, it is true that Rand did collect Social Security and Medicare. Ayn Rand Institute-affiliated writer, Onkar Ghate, addresses the so-called hypocrisy of this fact about Ayn Rand's life in his essay, "The Myth About Ayn Rand and Social Security." Ghate reminds us that Rand opposed

every "redistribution" scheme of the welfare state. Precisely because Rand views welfare programs like Social Security as legalized plunder, she thinks the only condition under which it is moral to collect Social Security is if one "regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism" (emphasis hers). The seeming contradiction that only the opponent of Social Security has the moral right to collect it dissolves, she argues, once you recognize the crucial difference between the voluntary and the coerced. Social Security is not voluntary. Your participation is forced through payroll taxes, with no choice to opt out even if you think the program harmful to your interests. If you consider such forced "participation" unjust, as Rand does, the harm inflicted on you would only be compounded if your announcement of the program's injustice precludes you from collecting Social Security.

Rand felt the same way about any number of government programs, including government scholarships, and such. In reality, Rand got a free education at the University of Petrograd in the Soviet Union, a newly-minted communist state; next to that, collecting Social Security is "a mere bag of shells," as Ralph Kramden would put it. But, you see, that's the whole issue, isn't it? Rand was born in the Soviet Union, and even that state wasn't "pure communism," as Marx envisioned it; for Marx, communism could only arise out of an advanced stage of capitalism, which, in his quasi-utopian imagination, would solve the problem of scarcity. The point is that there is not a single country on earth or in any historical period that has ever fit the description of a pure "-ism"; to this extent, Rand was completely correct to characterize her moral vision of "capitalism" as an "unknown ideal."

But there is a second point that is lost on critics who accuse Rand of hypocrisy; there is not a single person on earth who isn't born into a specific historical context, a particular place and time. At any period in history, we live in a world that provides us with a continuum of sorts, enabling us to navigate among the "mixed" elements of the world's "mixed" economies, that is, those economies that have various mixtures of markets and state regimentation. But as that world becomes more interconnected, the destructiveness of the most powerful politico-economic institutions and processes extend in ripple effects across the globe. And as F. A. Hayek never tired of saying, the more political power comes to dominate the world economies, the more political power becomes the only power worth having... one of the reasons "why the worst get on top." What Hayek meant, of course, is that in such a system, those who are most adept at using political power (the power of coercion) for their own benefit tend to rise to the top, leaving the vast majority of us struggling to make a buck. The "road to serfdom" is a long one, but serfdom is among us; it comes in the form of confiscatory taxation and expropriation to sustain an interventionist welfare state at home and a warfare state abroad.

I have always believed that context is king. And given the context in which we live, everyone of us has to do things we don't like to do. Even anarchists, those who by definition believe that the state itself lacks moral legitimacy, can't avoid walking down taxpayer-funded, government-subsidized sidewalks or travel on taxpayer-funded government-subsidized roads and interstate highways, or taxpayer-funded government-subsidized railroads, or controlled airways.

Then there's the issue of money. You know, whether of the paper, coin, or plastic variety. There are many on both the libertarian "right" and the new "left" who have argued that the historical genesis of the Federal Reserve System was a way of consolidating the power of banks, allowing banks (and their capital-intensive clients) to benefit from the inflationary expansion of the money supply. This has also had the added effect of paying for the growth of the bureaucratic welfare state to control the poor and the warfare state to expand state and class expropriation of resources across the globe. And it has led to an endless cycle of boom and bust. And yet, there isn't a person in the United States of whatever political persuasion who cannot avoid using money printed or coined by the Fed. Even among those on the left, so-called "limousine liberals" (a pejorative phrase used to describe people of the "left-liberal" persuasion who are hypocrites by definition) or those who advocate "democratic socialism" of the Sanders type, or those who advocate outright communism, own private property and buy their goods and services with money from other private property owners. It seems that there is not a single person on earth of any political persuasion who isn't a hypocrite, according to the "logic" of David Cross.

Ever the dialectician, I believe that given the context, the only way of attempting even partial restitution from a government that regulates everything from the boardroom to the bedroom is to milk the inner contradictions of the system.

But some individuals can't get restitution, because they were victims of another form of government coercion: the military draft. Ayn Rand believed that the draft was involuntary servitude, the ultimate violation of individual rights, based on the premise that the government owned your life and could do with it anything it pleased, including molding its draftees into killing machines, and sending them off to fight in undeclared illegitimate wars like those in Korea and Vietnam (both of which Rand opposed). What possible restitution is available to those who were murdered in those wars, or even to those who survived them, but who were irreparably damaged, physically and/or psychologically, by their horrific experiences on the killing fields?

The draft is no longer with us, and David Cross should be thanking that good ol' hypocrite Ayn Rand for the influence she had on the ending of that institution. Such people as Hank Holzer, Joan Kennedy Taylor, and Martin Anderson were among those who mounted the kind of intellectual and legal challenge to conscription that ultimately persuaded then President Richard M. Nixon to end the military draft.

And yet, Rand's taxes were certainly used to pay for the machinery of conscription and for the machinery of war; does this make her a hypocrite too, or should she have just refused to pay taxes and gone to prison? Yeah, that would have been productive. Perhaps she could have authored more works of fiction or nonfiction anthologies, chock-full of essays on epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, politics, economics, and culture from Rikers Island. Yeah, then Cross would have been correct: Rand surely would have been living in the worst public housing imaginable.

Thanks for giving me a chuckle, Mr. Cross.

Postscript: I was just made aware of a very detailed essay on the subject of "Ayn Rand, Social Security and the Truth," at the Facebook page of The Moorfield Storey Institute.

Postscript #2: Thanks to Ilana Mercer, who alerted me to Cross's "comedy," and for reprinting this post on her own "Barely a Blog." We're obviously compadres; a "Notablog" and a "Barely a Blog" are close enough to be cousins. :)

August 11, 2016

U.S. Foreign Policy: The Boomerang Effect or How the Chickens Come Home to Roost

Readers should check out an extraordinary full-length New York Times Magazine exclusive, "Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart."

So much of what is discussed in this article provides us with too many examples of the unintended consequences and boomerang effects of U.S. foreign policy, a lesson in how the "chickens come home to roost," whatever the intentions of the initial actors in history.

Of course, U.S. foreign policy cannot be evaluated as a sole causal agent in the history of the Middle East, and the Times series does not even suggest this; after all, the U.S. has been involved in the Middle East for a century or so, but the tribalist and ideological insanity that has been embedded in that part of the world has gone on for centuries. I've had a lot to say about this for over a decade now. So I've taken an opportunity to provide readers with an index to many of the essays I've authored on the subject over the years:

"Understanding the Global Crisis: Reclaiming Rand's Radical Legacy" (March 2003) [a .pdf file]

"History and Oil" (December 2003)

"Dick Cheney’s Words of Wisdom, Circa 1992" (27 December 2003)

"Flames and Oxygen"(27 December 2003)

"A Question of Loyalty" (November 2003 - January 2004) [a .pdf. file]

"Consequences: Intended and Unintended" (11 April 2004)

"The Birth of a Narcostate" (13 June 2004)

"Weighing in on a Foreign Policy Debate, Again" (29 July 2004)

"Education and Nation-Building in Iraq" (15 August 2004)

"Unintended Consequences Not Unforeseeable" (12 September 2004)

"Freedom and 'Islamofascism'" (6 October 2004)

"Fascism: Clarifying a Political Concept" (8 October 2004)

"America First" (10 October 2004)

In December 2004, I turned my attention to a five-part review of Peter Schwartz's book, The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America, published on the Liberty and Power Group Blog of the History News Network:

"Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part I: Introduction / Schwartz's Core Arguments" (6 December 2004)

"Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part II: Foreign Aid and the United Nations" (7 December 2004)

"Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part III: Saudi Arabia" (8 December 2004)

"Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part IV: The History of U.S. Foreign Policy" (9 Decemer 2004)

"Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part V: The Current War / The Folly of Nation-Building / The Inextricable Connection between Domestic and Foreign Policy" (10 December 2004)

Additional essays followed:

"The Costs of War, Part 1" (23 March 2005)

"The Costs of War, Part 2" (25 March 2005)

"Iran, Again" (3 November 2005)

"ARI, Iraq, and Healthy Dissent" (22 December 2005)

"Iraq: A Perception Problem?" (22 March 2006)

"A Crisis of Political Economy (1 October 2008)

None of the above essays, intensely critical of U.S. foreign policy, has anything to do with my own thoughts about September 11th 2001, the date on which a vicious attack on the home of my birth forever altered our lives. I've written 15 essays, beginning on that infamous date, and continuing each year in an annual tribute to those who lost their lives, those who saved lives, and those who have lived and learned to build again. Check out the index to those essays "Remembering the World Trade Center." A new essay in that annual series will be posted on the 15th anniversary of the attack: September 11, 2016.

July 20, 2016

The Donald and Mercer's "Trump Revolution"

For a political junkie like myself, every four years, watching and retching over the major political party conventions is a rite of passage into the Fall Election campaign for President of the United States. This week, I've watched wall-to-wall coverage of the GOP convention, and I will somehow get through the Democratic Party convention next week. A rite of passage is a ritual, and not all rituals are pleasant, but in my political playbook, they are necessary.

As a prelude to some of my observations on the Trump campaign, I just added a 5-star amazon.com review, "A Must-Read Book for Trump Fans and Foes," of Ilana Mercer's newest book, The Trump Revolution: The Donald's Creative Destruction Deconstructed. Much of what appears here is taken from that review, though I have added links and a few additional observations.

Starting with a quote from Mercer's book, I state: "Donald J. Trump is smashing an enmeshed political spoils system to bits: the media complex, the political and party complex, the conservative poseur complex. In the age of unconstitutional government—Democratic and Republican—this process of creative destruction can only increase the freedom quotient." So begins Ilana Mercer's provocative take on The Trump Revolution: The Donald's Creative Destruction Deconstructed.

Ilana Mercer is no fan of Obama or The W who came before him, but she thinks that "Trump is likely the best Americans can hope for." She’s “not necessarily for the policies of Trump, but for the process of Trump.” This, in itself, is the most interesting of her arguments in a well-constructed book of essays that builds the case for that process. Quoting favorably the views of Justin Raimondo of antiwar.com, Mercer drives home the point, most crucial in my view, and perhaps the most appealing aspect of Trump’s foreign policy views insofar as we know them: that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way NATO functions and that the role of the United States in foreign affairs must be fundamentally re-evaluated. Trump takes pride in being an opponent of the Iraq war, which many of us predicted would lead to the kind of chaos that has developed in the ensuing years [a .pdf link to my article, "Understanding the Global Crisis"]. But no one man or even a movement of disaffected voters behind him, a mere echo of the Old Right that was “usurped by neoconservatives,” will be able to fundamentally alter the “military-industrial complex” that lies at the root of American foreign policy, or the overall government intervention that fuels it both at home and abroad.

Though Trump is probably the least homophobic of GOPers, I am still uncomfortable with his mixed views on same-sex marriage and his stances on abortion. I am uncomfortable with his talk about deporting 11 million people, and the police power that would be required to do so; I am uncomfortable with talks about building walls when it was Ronald Reagan who talked about tearing walls down (and if the reason for the Mexican wall is to keep out criminals and drugs, as claimed by Trump, then he’s not as radical a thinker as some would have us believe … since he needs to re-evaluate the whole “war on drugs” that has fueled the crime coming out of our southern neighbor). I look back at the history of stopping certain types of people from entering this country, and I see a mixed bag; after all, many Muslims have run from their own countries, ruled by extremist Islamic dictatorial ideologues, because they have faced discrimination, torture, and death in their struggles against everything from centuries-old tribalism to oppressive misogyny. This country has had a history of being afraid of outsiders, even though it was built on the backs of so many of those who came to America seeking the freedom to live and produce in peace (not to mention the shameful chapter in our history when people came to this country unwillingly to live and produce in a state of involuntary servitude). Do we need to be reminded of the Japanese-American internment camps constructed during World War II? Or of how many German Jews were denied access to America, because of highly restrictive immigration quotas, in the years leading up to and including World War II? Incredibly, widespread anti-Semitism in this country fueled the fear that some Jews were seeking refuge here and might very well be working as agents of the Nazis! How many of them ended up in gas chambers rather than in that “shining city upon a hill” that beckoned them to the promise of America?

Mercer is completely correct that much of what corrupts our political economy is the role of the state in economic affairs; such is the root of crony capitalism, championed by Democrats and Republicans alike. And like all businesspeople, Trump knows he has to wheel and deal with city, state, and federal politicians, who are corrupt almost by definition. Using things like eminent domain, however, is not the language of the free marketer; Trump can never be confused with a libertarian, no matter how much better he might be in the eyes of some, than the Establishment Politicians (and none of what I’ve said here is meant as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, whose politics I’ll address at the end of next week’s Democratic convention).

In the end, however, it is a testament to Mercer’s muscular writing and clever reasoning that I was able to read her book in a single sitting. That is a compliment in and of itself. She challenges all of us to think about what so many thought unthinkable: that this guy often dismissed as a reality-show clown, just might become President of the United States.

I should say that I have only one personal proviso to add with regard to the Trump family; in the last year of my mother’s life, it was Blaine Trump, ex-sister-in-law of Donald (she was married to his brother Robert), who paid for Mom’s Make a Wish Foundation round trip, via luxury limousine, with her immediate family (me, my sister, brother, and sister-in-law) to Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. At a time when mom was in the throes of her five-year battle against lung cancer, it was a charitable gesture that we will always remember and cherish, and the Trump family has always played a big role in funding that foundation. That charity aside, it certainly cannot influence my views of this man’s candidacy, even if it says something positive about his character. In any event, this proviso has absolutely nothing to do with my views of Mercer’s controversial, wonderfully readable book. Buy it, read it. You won’t be disappointed.


So ends my review of the Mercer book. For Notablog readers, I would like to make a few additional points. I have long observed the pendulum phenomenon in politics, the one that emerges from the old adage: "The job of the new leader is to make the last one look good." So disgusted were Americans with the collapse of U.S. economic and foreign policy in the Bush years, that Obama was swept into office for two terms, no less, on the promises of "Yes, We Can!" Yes, we can change things fundamentally. Yes, we can end recession at home and a war without end abroad. Yes, we can. Well, as it turned out: We can't. So, disgusted Americans, especially those attracted to the GOP, but many of these partying among the Elephants for the first time as disenfranchised "blue collar" and "working class" people, have embraced Trump. They have given the Grand Old Party Establishment a Grand Middle Finger of revolt, precisely because they are revolted by the state of affairs in this country.

When I was 8 years old, I went to my first political rally, purely out of curiosity, with my Uncle Sam and my sister Elizabeth. We stood at the corner of 85th Street and Bay Parkway in Brooklyn, across from the Chase Manhattan Bank that still stands there (except the 4-sided clock that topped the building actually worked back then!)

In attendance was Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey fighting for the Democratic Party, in place of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, despite having crushed the GOP's Barry Goldwater in a 1964 landslide, had announced that he would not seek re-election. The Great Society he sought to create was collapsing under the weight of an expanding welfare-warfare state. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Humphrey was left standing, fighting for his political life. That night in Brooklyn, the antiwar crowd, which had blamed LBJ for the thousands of soldiers coming back from Vietnam to America in body bags, drowned out Humphrey's speech by a constant refrain, screamed louder and louder: "Dump the Hump! Dump the Hump! Dump the Hump!"

Humphrey's battle was lost to the newest "Law and Order" man in town, who was actually part of the older long-time GOP Establishment. A former virulently hostile anti-communist Senator, Vice President to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, went on to lose the 1960 election to JFK, but by 1968, he had reinvented himself into a winning candidate. And we all know what happened after that. The anti-communist shook hands with Brezhnev and Mao, one of history's greatest mass murderers (which may help us to put Obama's handshake with one of the Castro brothers into perspective). But neither law nor order followed, in the depths of Nixon's political corruption. And so, the pendulums of U.S. politics swung with ferocity against the Watergate-corrupted administration, forcing Nixon to resign, as he handed presidential power over to the thoroughly un-elected Gerald Ford. Ford went down to defeat, in the Bicentennial Year, in another pendulum swing, handing the presidency over to the bumbling ineffectiveness of one-term Jimmy Carter. And then came the ultimate swing for the fences, as former Democrat-turned-Barry Goldwater advocate, Ronald Reagan, ushered in the modern conservative movement.

And so the pendulum continues to swing from W to Obama to ... I don't know. And right now, "None of the Above" is looking mighty good to me. Given the excitement that so many have for the Trump candidacy, but who drop the context of the real dynamics of American politics, it would not surprise me if those disgusted with Obama-Clinton carry the day. It would not surprise me if Trump became President. And it would not surprise me to hear echoes of those 1968 chants all over again, as they morph from "Dump the Hump!" to "Dump the Trump!" We've been hearing variations on that, for months, in any event. Cliché though it is, time will tell.

Postscript: In discussions on Facebook, I make a few additional points. In response to one comment, raising the issue of the Libertarian Party, I write:

. . . I don't endorse Trump. Honestly, however dishonest Clinton is--and what politician isn't?--she is a known quantity, but that's not exactly a rousing endorsement either. Gary Johnson and William Weld are good men, though I have my criticisms. I would have voted for Weld way back, but he stood absolutely no chance in a socially conservative GOP. To echo the opening words from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I": "These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today. But I say this to our citizenry: We, ever your servants, will continue to defend your liberty and repel the forces that seek to take it from you!" When those forces exist within your own country, you are in the darkest of times.

In reply to another comment, which stresses the point that we should concern ourselves with those things that are most within our power to control, things at the "local" level, I state:

. . . that's a very good observation. Unfortunately, however, what happens on the national level and even the global level can so intrude on the things that are more within our power to influence that it gets to the point where it becomes difficult even to make changes locally. The more complex and interrelated the world becomes, the more difficult it becomes for all of us. When an insane ideology from halfway around the world inspires local lone wolf nutjobs to attack a San Bernadino facility for people with developmental disabilities or to go into a gay nightclub in Orlando and kill 49 people, wounding another 53, the world starts to become smaller and smaller. That doesn't mean that I don't agree with your point that asserting ourselves on the local level is a good thing.

June 13, 2016

Song of the Day #1356

Song of the Day: Stitches, words and music by Danny Parker, Teddy Geiger, and Daniel Kyriakides, was a top 5 Billboard hit for Canadian singer, Shawn Mendes, for his 2015 debut album, "Handwritten." As I watched the 70th Annual Tony Awards last night, I thought of this song [YouTube link], for the Awards show opened with a tribute to the 50 known dead, murdered in an Orlando, Florida gay dance club, Pulse, which has also left more than 50 people injured, many of them critically. I've wanted to post this song for a long time, for the young singer seems to capture the pain of someone who has lost his love; but today, when I read some of the song's lyrics, I cannot help but think of this terrible tragedy, the worst mass killing in U.S. history (not counting the obscenity of 9/11). "You watch me bleed until I can't breathe," Mendes sings. "Shaking, falling onto my knees; And now that I'm without your kisses; I'll be needing stitches; ripping over myself; Aching, begging you to come help; And now that I'm without your kisses; I'll be needing stitches..." No stitches will bring back the loved ones who were massacred in that club. For the LGBT movement, living in a country that until recently didn't even recognize their civil right to marriage--"civil right" has never implied that religious institutions be forced to perform gay marriage ceremonies--this is truly a horrific tragedy. This community opened the doors of a dance club peacefully, joyfully, welcoming people of all lifestyles, to celebrate a Gay Pride month that marks the anniversary of that day in libertarian history when the gay rights movement was born at the Stonewall Inn, when drag queens were sick and tired of being harassed and arrested, and having their clubs routinely raided by the tormenting forces of law. It took decades for that community to get certain civil rights recognized under the constitution as applicable to all people. But it wasn't just the opposition of the police and the law that the LGBT movement faced. The process of "coming out," after all, is something that is intensely personal; many gay men and women have also dealt painfully with the rejection of their parents of various faiths, who have viewed homosexuality as a sin, punishable by everything from excommunication to prison, and in some tribalist cultures, even death by stoning. They say that this terrorist act was committed by an ISIS-motivated gay-hating whackjob; but there was a time in this country that the death of 50 people, most of them probably gay, would have been a party event for those on the Christian Right, who, like Fred Phelps, showed up at the funeral of the murdered, martyred Matthew Shepard, with placards declaring "God hates fags" and that the young gay man was now condemned to eternal damnation in hell because he had not repented. And let's not let the left off the hook either, for communist societies have been known for their gay gulags, many of them adhering to the Marxist mantra that homosexuality was simply a sign of the decadence of capitalism. Let me be clear: This is not a fight simply of doctrinal religious differences or political differences. It is a fight that goes to the deepest core of a society's cultural values. Until a time comes when people can simply live their lives free of coercion or of coercing others, there is not an individual alive in this country who will be safe from the culture of hate, a culture that simmers when stoked by rejecting parents, holier-than-thou religious leaders, and prejudiced politicians. A few years ago, the U.S. government invaded a country in the Middle East, and partially justified the insanity as an exercise in "nation-building"--in a section of the world that still has no conception of what a nation is or what kinds of nonbarbaric cultural values any human society must embrace in order to sustain itself: values such as the rule of law, the sanctity of individual rights, and the pursuit of justice. The apocalypse that has resulted is the kind of blowback that people of good will warned against at the time. Today, however, this is not just a fight for your right to liberty and or your right to justly-acquired property, but a fight for your very right to life, your very right to exist, whatever sexual orientation you are. This is a country and a world that will not, and cannot, be held together in "stitches." Every person of any orientation must be able to find the courage, the "eternal vigilance" that it takes to preserve life and liberty. Those who kill in the name of a hateful God are truly of the godless; and if there is a hell, it is not the innocent dead in that club who will be consumed by its inferno, but the killers themselves who will burn on the very ninth circle they wish to create on earth.

March 28, 2016

Nucky Thompson Was Right

In the very first episode of the HBO hit series "Boardwalk Empire," Steve Buscemi, who plays the lead character Nucky Thompson — racketeer, political insider, and bootlegger — lifts his glass of liquor in a toast to "the distinguished gentlemen of our nation's Congress . . . those beautiful, ignorant bastards," who enacted the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which declared that "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited."

This nightmarish "noble experiment" lasted from 1920 to 1933, until the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition (and was probably one of the most important reasons for FDR's initial first-term popularity as an advocate for its repeal). Without a doubt, the major effect of this legislation was to give a boost to organized crime. From speakeasies to mob wars, the general population of this country became part of a new culture of criminality that put the Roar in the Roaring Twenties. As an entry on Wikipedia puts it:

Organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition. Mafia groups limited their activities to prostitution, gambling, and theft until 1920, when organized bootlegging emerged in response to Prohibition. A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Prohibition provided a financial basis for organized crime to flourish. In a study of more than 30 major U.S. cities during the Prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24%. Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9%, homicides by 12.7%, assaults and battery rose by 13%, drug addiction by 44.6%, and police department costs rose by 11.4%. This was largely the result of "black-market violence" and the diversion of law enforcement resources elsewhere. Despite the Prohibition movement's hope that outlawing alcohol would reduce crime, the reality was that the Volstead Act led to higher crime rates than were experienced prior to Prohibition and the establishment of a black market dominated by criminal organizations. The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre produced seven deaths, considered one of the deadliest days of mob history. Furthermore, stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the federal government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. In response, bootleggers hired chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. As a response, the Treasury Department required manufacturers to add more deadly poisons, including the particularly deadly methyl alcohol. New York City medical examiners prominently opposed these policies because of the danger to human life. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended. New York City medical examiner Charles Norris believed the government took responsibility for murder when they knew the poison was not deterring people and they continued to poison industrial alcohol (which would be used in drinking alcohol) anyway. Norris remarked: "The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol... [Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible."

One of the few really good things to have come out of that era has been a terrific flow of really good gangster movies, including the 1987 Grammy Award-winning Ennio Morricone-scored film, "The Untouchables," with Robert DeNiro as one terrific Al Capone, Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, and a fine Sean Connery, who played Jimmy Malone (based on the real-life Irish American agent, Marty Lahart), who went on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In the end, Capone was brought down not by his criminal activities, per se, but by tax evasion.

With prohibition repealed, however, the model for the expansion of organized crime extended into the prohibited black markets for hard drugs, from cocaine to heroin. From Mafia chieftans to drug lords running operations across the world, from Latin America to Afghanistan, much of the profits of this business have boosted the money flow to terrorist organizations of all sorts. Crime has soared. And the prison population in the United States began to outstrip that of every modern society.

Last week, a cover story with regard to the "War on Drugs," was published by the New York Daily News stating that John Ehrlichman, who went to prison for Watergate-related crimes, and "who served as President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief," admitted that the ‘War on Drugs’ strategy was a "policy tool to go after anti-war protesters and ‘black people’." Apparently, these revelations were made in an interview with journalist Dan Baum, for a 1994 book, but were not revealed until the current April 2016 issue of Harper's, where the writer provides a wide-ranging discussion of how to seriously readjust drug policies in the United States. Here is an excerpt from the Daily News article:

“You want to know what this was really all about,” Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, said in the interview after Baum asked him about Nixon’s harsh anti-drug policies. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying,” Ehrlichman continued. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” . . . By 1973, about 300,000 people were being arrested every year under the law — the majority of whom were African-American.

The following day, the News reported that Nixon's former White House counsel John Dean expressed shock over the revelations "but admitted 'it's certainly possible.' . . . If this was indeed true, it would have been the Nixon-Ehrlichman private agenda.'"

On this issue, a fine piece appears today from Mark Thornton, writing on Mises Daily (the site of the Ludwig von Mises Institute): "The Legalization Cure for the Heroin Epidemic." For years, voices on the left and on the right (from the time of William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman to Senator Rand Paul today) have been advocating a saner drug policy. Forty years after this declaration of a "War on Drugs," 1 trillion dollars in taxpayer money spent, the prisons are packed — drug use is apparently just as rampant behind bars as on the streets — but the epidemic stretches from the inner cities to suburbia.

It is clear, however, that no political change will occur if we have to depend on those "beautiful, ignorant bastards," until there is a cultural shift across this country that allows this issue to be re-examined fundamentally. The time has come.

February 19, 2016

Song of the Day #1323

Song of the Day: Sophie's Choice ("Love Theme") [YouTube link], composed by Marvin Hamlisch, is a soft, loving theme that cushions the blow of an utterly devastating film. I only saw this film about a year ago, and was deeply affected by the horrors it depicts during the years of the Nazi holocaust. Without referring to the "choice" that Sophie must make in the film, I can say that it reminded me of Ayn Rand's novel, We the Living, which depicts the horrors of Soviet communism, in one important sense: the insanity of totalitarian political systems that allow no choices except among forms of death and decay. It is all the more fitting to remember that nightmare on this day, which is a "day of remembrance" for those who were the subject of Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, allowing the deportation of Japanese Americans to internment camps within the United States during World War II. Ironically, it was film that first made me aware of those camps, when I first saw "Hell to Eternity," as a child, a 1960 movie with Jeffrey Hunter (who played Christ in the 1961 film, "King of Kings") and David Janssen (who was "The Fugitive" in that remarkable television series of the 1960s). Those camps certainly were not extermination camps, but they are a symbol of what happens during wartime, when individual rights are abrogated both at home and abroad. In any event, the 1982 film gave Meryl Streep a much-deserved Oscar award for Best Actress, and Hamlisch received a much-deserved nomination for Best Original Score, losing out to the iconic John Williams score for "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." It is difficult to find a moment of joy or laughter in films of this nature, but I will never forget Sophie's admiration of Stingo's seersucker jacket [YouTube link]. The film's house was situated in Brooklyn, New York, and it stands still on Rugby Road in Flatbush.

November 24, 2015

The Frank Sinatra Centenary: Celebrating an American Icon

A "Song of the Day" Sinatra Tribute Begins "From This Moment On"

Today, Tuesday, November 24, 2015, I begin a tribute to Francis Albert Sinatra, which will culminate on Saturday, December 12, 2015, the day on which we will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Yes, he was The Voice for seven decades of the twentieth-century, from the mid-1930s to the early 1990s. But his enormous artistic gifts have been preserved forever in film, vocal recordings, and concert performances, allowing future generations a glimpse of the ever-lasting impact he made on American culture, art, and music.

When Sinatra first entered the scene, he was this scrawny kid from humble Hoboken, New Jersey in search of a stage. But this was a proud Italian American, whose father emigrated from Sicily and whose mother came from Genoa. As a first-generation American son of immigrant parents, he was open to the musically diverse American palette. At first, he absorbed much from the crooner school of Bing Crosby, and, like Bing, he was deeply influenced by one of the most distinctly American musical idioms: Jazz. Sinatra's schooling in jazz came from a diverse array of artists, starting with sizzling hot trumpeter Harry James with whom he first sang. James would routinely throw him an improvised musical curveball, which Sinatra would learn to field vocally, so-to-speak. He submerged himself in the New York club scene, and learned much watching the live performances of English-born cabaret singer, Mabel Mercer and, especially, of Billie Holiday. But it was his tenure in the Big Band of trombonist Tommy Dorsey that taught him more about singing than any vocal teacher could possibly offer him. He always said that he learned more about breath control by watching Dorsey's trombone solos, played with such seamlessness that one could barely detect the jazzman's breathing. Before too long, his talent brought him front and center on the stage, as he captured the excitement of the bobby-soxer generation. The kids simply went wild. But he did not become The Voice, Ol' Blue Eyes, or the Chairman of the Board overnight. He didn't simply collect Grammy Awards, Golden Globes, Emmy Awards, and Oscar statuettes; in the early years, he battled his self-destructive tendencies, and it would take years for him to truly find himself, reinvent himself, giving new meaning to the Koehler lyric, "I've got the world on a string, sittin' on a rainbow, got the string around my finger. What a world! What a life!" What a life, indeed.

Eventually, it was Sinatra's self-reinvention that earned him Golden Globe and Oscar Awards for his film work, Grammy Awards for his singing, including the Grammy Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement and Legend Awards. In fact, he received recognition for Lifetime Achievement from so many of the industry's associations, that a brief summary doesn't do him justice. The accolades came from such institutions as the Screen Actors Guild; the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers; the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame; the Kennedy Center; the American Music Award of Merit; the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. Moreover, he was a two-time winner of the critics' Downbeat poll for Male Singer of the Year, while the Downbeat readers named him Male Singer of the Year for sixteen years and Personality of the Year for six years.

A Deplorable Excess of Personality?

In the 1993 film version of "Jurassic Park," John Hammond, the creator of the park, played by Richard Attenborough, characterizes Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) as a person who suffers from a "deplorable excess of personality." Some might have said the same about Sinatra, whose excesses often undercut his early successes. So before we go on singing the praises of this Patron Saint of Song, it's best that we put some issues to rest, for they are not unimportant. I know that there are many people out there who find it impossible to separate the art from the artist. In some respects, it would be horrifically ahistorical and acontextal; grasping the artist's cultural or personal context might go a long way toward understanding and appreciating his accomplishments. But it is also true that many great artists throughout history have created magnificent works of art that either gave expression to the demons within, or provided a cathartic means by which to exorcize them. The point here is that it would be a mistake to dismiss the greatness of art because the artist suffers from character flaws. One thing that Sinatra accomplished, however, is that he emerged from these early years a better singer and a superior artist. As he says it in one of his signature tunes: "The record shows, I took the blows and did it My Way." By acknowledging his excesses and failures, Sinatra, in his vocals, became ever more expressive of a raw honesty, which came through whether he was singing of lost love, or of the joyous possibilities of life.

But the maturity of his art could not have emerged without his very public ups and downs. His critics viewed him as a thug, made all the worse because he was an Italian American with all the bigotry that this fact of ethnicity implied, especially in an era that gave us both the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. Gangsta rappers have nothing on Ol' Blue Eyes. We've seen and heard it all: from his mug shot, to his tumultuous affair with and marriage to Ava Gardner and his subsequent attempts at suicide; and, later, his rowdy days and nights in Las Vegas with the Rat Pack, which fueled rumors of rampant womanizing and alleged Mafia ties.

And then there were emergent political problems he had to face. Having been declared 4F for service in the military, he and actor Orson Welles campaigned fiercely for FDR. His ability to entertain on the home front, and to film such extravaganzas as the 1945 musical comedy, "Anchors Away" (in which he worked like a "prizefighter" behind the scenes to keep up with the gifted choreographer, dancer, singer, and actor Gene Kelly), made him a bona fide star, and uplifted many spirits in a world consumed by war. But his liberal FDR-friendly politics, his embrace of a 'progressive' New Deal agenda, and his public stances against racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry at the end of World War II (as expressed in the 1945 short film "The House I Live In," which won an Honorary Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Film Promoting International Good Will), provided fodder for his tabloid critics. Many branded him a "red," a "leftist," and an out-and-out commie, to which Sinatra is reported to have replied: "Bullshit." There is a touch of irony in all of this red-baiting: despite being a virtual cheerleader of "High Hopes" [YouTube link], the very song Sinatra adapted for the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign, the singer was marginalized by JFK, given his connections to mobster Sam Giancana and others. Sinatra's political journey went from supervising JFK's inaugural party to supervising the presidential gala of Republican Ronald Reagan, for whom he had become a vocal supporter, and from whom he received the "Medal of Freedom."

In the years after filming "The House I Live In," the McCarthy era press became increasingly suspicious and hostile toward anyone suspected of left-wing views. This was the era of the Cold War, which turned increasingly hot in places like Korea. He was advised by actor Humphrey Bogart to ignore the tabloids, because he could never win any battles against a hostile press. Sinatra being Sinatra, of course, ignored Bogie's sound advice. On April 8, 1947, he went to see Peggy Lee's opening night at Ciro's on the Sunset Strip; behind him, he overheard the voice of his chief newspaper nemesis, the columnist, Lee Mortimer, who questioned Sinatra's patriotism in print, and who, on this night, referred to Sinatra as a "dago" and "guinea bastard." This was overheard by an overheated Sinatra, who recalls: "I tapped him on the shoulder, and I hit him so fucking hard I broke the whole front of his face, and he banged his head." Mortimer said he was going to destroy Sinatra, but ultimately, the issue was settled with Sinatra paying damages. He never forgot Mortimer, though; any time their paths crossed, Sinatra would spit at him. (These priceless stories are from the terrific HBO two-part documentary, "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All," from which I've drawn quite a bit for this essay.)

There is no doubt that this period in Sinatra's life took its toll; his excesses, his losses, his alcohol abuse, led him to a catastrophic collapse in his recording and acting career. His record company axed his contract and few film offers came his way. Even before the Ava Gardner-related suicide attempts in the early 1950s, Modern Television and Radio magazine was asking plainly in December 1948: "Is Sinatra Finished?"

If Sinatra's career had simply ended right then and there, we would barely be talking about the centenary of his birth. For indeed, the melodrama of his life dredges up the old debate about whether one can appreciate art apart from the artist, who might very well be a suicidal (or homicidal) maniac. Before discussing how Sinatra turned his life around, it's important to talk about this issue, for it has been raised so many times before with regard to other artists and their art.

For example, let's just say for a moment that every last accusation against Michael Jackson were true (with regard to the sexual abuse of minors, something for which he was acquitted in the only case to make it to trial). For me, it would not in any way, shape, or form, diminish my love and admiration of Jackson's talents as a musician, composer, and dancer. Jackson provided me with the soundtrack of my youth, and I cannot for a moment imagine a world without the songs I danced to, or laughed to, or cried to. I cannot for a single moment imagine a world where I'd never had the opportunity to see and hear him live, on stage, in a series of utterly brilliant concert performances. He was the quintessential "song-and-dance" man of my generation who touched the lives of millions of fans worldwide, which explains how deeply shattered we were by his own tragic death in 2009. So, whether he was a drug addict or a pedophile or a nutjob of the first order would have made no difference with regard to this fan's love of his art; and so it is with everyone from jazz guitar legend Joe Pass (who emerged from Synanon), or rock legends Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin or even to those classical philosophers, composers, musicians, painters, scultptors, writers, artists, etc., of whose flaws many of us are perenially unaware. Rest assured, if there was a tabloid press during the days of Classical Greece or Ancient Rome or the Renaissance, I can't imagine the stories that would have come to light about some of our philosophical and artistic heroes! It probably would have made the Robert Graves work, I, Claudius, look tame by comparison.

Loving a work of the creative imagination does not provide an apologia for the alleged or real sins or political views of its creator. In any event, our aesthetic responses are not generally guided by conscious reflection or articulated moral judgments about those who create. They are emotional responses that often emerge from the deepest and most complex corners of our soul. And here's the irony: a tortured artist (and there are plenty of them throughout history) might create a work of sublime beauty that speaks to those aspects of his own soul, crying out for objectification. And as responders, we may openly embrace that creation. Or perhaps, that same artist's tortured soul and life experiences might fully inhabit a work of art in its depiction of unimaginable sadness. But whatever our response, it is not necessarily a psychological confession concerning the depravity of our sense of life. It might simply speak to our own life experiences of loss, regret, and unfathomable grief. And we respond accordingly.

It is no accident that Sinatra was a consummate story-teller, for the way he delivered a lyric of heartbreak elicited responses from his fans, who, as part of the human family, had suffered through feelings of similar grief, loss, and regret. In "Angel Eyes" [YouTube link], there's that image of Frank sitting by himself in a bar, contemplating lost love. He tells us, conversationally, painfully, "Try to think that love's not around, but it's uncomfortably near. My old heart ain't gaining no ground, because my angel eyes ain't here." The listener feels every syllable of loss with his impeccable diction in the delivery of the lyric. He's an actor telling a story, yes; but he's connecting that story to the real losses he has experienced in his own life. The grief is palpable. It's as if he had adopted the technique of "method acting" to the very art of song. It helps one to understand just why he was referred to as "the poet laureate of loneliness."

A Life Worth Living: The Sinatra Revolution

One thing is clear about Frank Sinatra, perhaps best expressed in one of my all-time favorite recordings of his; when he hit bottom, he was determined to turn it around. "That's Life" [YouTube link, and here too], after all, "as funny as it may seem, some people get their kicks stompin' on a dream. But I don't let it, let it get me down, 'cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin' around." He sings with defiance: "I've been up and down and over and out and I know one thing. Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race. . . . I can't deny it; I thought of quitting, baby, put my heart just ain't gonna buy it. And if I didn't think it was worth one single try, I'd jump right on a big bird and then I'd fly."

But the vehicle for his comeback was neither a bird nor a song; it was a film. And a legendary Fedora (or shall we call it a Cavanaugh?).

It was with his reading of the 1951 James Jones novel, From Here to Eternity, that he became convinced that he would be perfect for the role of Private Angelo Maggio, for the upcoming 1953 film adaptation. He secured the role (most likely with the help of Ava Gardner, not Don Vito Corleone, and subsequently won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Film wasn't the only medium to conquer; Sinatra, after all, was a consummate stylist. He was no longer the scrawny looking kid from Hoboken; now, with a cocked Fedora atop his head, he seemed to define the very essence of cool, of attitude, of self-assuredness. And he influenced a whole generation of men on the sexiness of hats. My own Dad wore one of those hats till the day he died. Nevertheless, despite the Fedora, film was the central vehicle driving the Sinatra revolution to the next phase of his creativity.

Over the years, his very presence on the screen commanded your attention. He could move you to dance (in the 1955 film of "Guys and Dolls"), to laugh (in the 1960 heist film starring all of his Rat Pack cohorts, "Ocean's Eleven"), to cry (playing a heroin addict, with chilling film noir scenes of detox, in the 1955 film, "The Man with the Golden Arm"), to take notice, when his character depicted intense realism (in the 1962 film, "The Manchurian Candidate," and the 1968 film, "The Detective") and, finally, to suffer profound grief just when you thought you were on the precipice of glory (the 1965 World War II POW film, "Von Ryan's Express").

I actually saw "Von Ryan's Express" in 1965 when it first came out, at the age of 5 years old. The memory of it is so vivid, so engrained in my psyche because it was a night of trauma for me. The family took the drive out to Long Island to see the film at the Sunrise Drive-In Theater in Valley Stream, New York. Being at a Drive-In was a big thrill back then, and at the age of five, it was an overwhelming experience for me. I mean, you could go and get popcorn, and never miss any part of the movie. The thing about drive-ins though, is that they are built so that cars can be perched at an upward tilt, on mini-gravel hills. Well, when I went with my sister to get the requisite popcorn, I was running up one of those mini-gravel hills (which appeared closer to the size of Mount Everest to me). Somehow, I got tangled in my sneaker-laces, and went flying downside when I reached the apex of Everest. Naturally, like every other 5-year old boy, I ripped open my right knee for the umpteenth time of my youth. I had previously ripped it open getting caught in the metal of a fence, while I climbed it. And then there was the Becky Incident. Becky was the dog of my best friend's family, and she gave birth to my first dog: Timmy. In any event, I so wanted to walk Becky the Beagle, so, as a precaution, my best friend's mom tied Becky's leash to my wrist so that she would not run away, while I walked her. The stage was set for catastrophe. When the dog saw my friend up the block, she got very excited, and proceeded to run full-speed ahead along the sidewalk of Highlawn Avenue. The leash was still attached to my wrist. In hindsight, I figured this is what it must have felt like to be Messala, in "Ben-Hur," holding on to the reins, but being dragged to my death by horses galloping with a fallen chariot.

The gash scars from the Drive-In movie, and other sporting events, are still quite visible, even now, at the age of 55. But being a 5-year old at the Drive-In, I couldn't fight back the tears, from the pain, and from witnessing the blood pouring out of my wound. Mom and sister cleaned me up, and we returned to the car, to watch the epic climax of Sinatra's war film. He played the role of Colonel Joseph Ryan, leading a POW escape to Switzerland, across Nazi-occupied Italy. And [SPOILER ALERT!], in the final scenes, as the prisoner train is just about to cross into Switzerland, Ryan is running frantically behind that last train car, trying desperately to escape the Waffen-SS troops in pursuit. He is shot by machine gun rounds. Tragically, he falls dead.

Well, this was just too much for my traumatic night. I got hysterical crying, and it took lots of assurances from my mother and sister that Frankie was still alive; it was only a movie. Come to think of it, the last Drive-In theater experience I had also featured a tragedy; it was in April 1998, virtually one month to the day before Ol' Blue Eyes passed away. We were vacationing in Tucson, Arizona, and went to the De Anza Drive-In, where, fortunately, I did not rip open my knee, but I do admit to crying again, as I watched the last heartbreaking moments of the sinking "Titanic" on a huge 70mm screen!

The Essence of Sinatra's Vocal Revolution

Having conquered the film world and the style world, there was nothing left to conquer but that which Sinatra was born to be: The Voice. To say he was musically triumphant in the 1950s and 1960s would be an understatement. He retains the distinction of being among the very first artists to bring into the market the idea of "the concept album." Sinatra would go on to sell more than 150 million albums throughout his prolific recording career. Among the classic "concept albums," one finds such gems as "Songs for Young Lovers," "In the Wee Small Hours," "Come Fly with Me," "Nice 'n Easy," and "September of My Years. But we can't forget some of those magnificent live concert recordings such as "Sinatra at the Sands" (with Count Basie), and those utterly remarkable sessions with artists who transcended global boundaries and eras, men such as Duke Ellington and Antonio Carlos Jobim (check out this brilliant clip with Jobim and Sinatra, from the third installment of his TV specials, "A Man and His Music").

Not all of Sinatra's work with Jobim was first released when it was recorded; Sinatra was a perfectionist, and some of it just didn't feel right. The "Complete Reprise Recordings" of their work together wasn't issued until 2010. The liner notes are absolutely priceless, as they tell the story of the meeting of two giants from different parts of the world, who had vastly different personalities: Sinatra, a veritable "fearless" Lion in the studio or on the stage; Jobim, the quiet, reserved genius of Brazilian music, and one of the creators of that lyrical fusion of samba and jazz known as the bossa nova. The writer of the notes, Stan "Underwood" Cornyn, who just passed away in May 2015, tells us a story that by its very nature teaches us something about the universality of music. One thing that the two artists worked on, over and over again, was to find just the right balance between the louder instruments and percussive sounds and the quiet, tender melodies that required near silence. Cornyn writes:

Seemed like the whole idea was to out-hush each other. Decibels treated like daggers. The arranger tiptoeing about, eliminating some percussion here, ticks there, ridding every song of click, bings, bips, all things sharp. Doing it with the fervor matched only by Her Majesty's Silkworms. But when someone asks if the piano part (played by Sinatra's personal accompanist Bill Miller) didn't come off just a little jarring, Sinatra counters with, "Him percussive? He's got fingers made out of jello." Henceforth, Miller plays jello-keys. And Sinatra makes a joke about all this. "I haven't sung so soft since I had the laryngitis." But while singing soft, making no joke about it. Singing so soft, if he sang any softer he'd have to be lying on his back.

The resulting sessions are, in my view, among the most sublime music ever created by two masters of their craft.

In this essay, we have learned that few entertainers could top the tabloid adventures of Francis Albert Sinatra. However, even fewer performers could barely touch Sinatra's accomplishments as an exquisite interpreter of the Great American Songbook. He could deliver a ballad with graceful diction, and break your heart. He could swagger his way through the swinging orchestrations of some of the best arrangers and conductors in the business, from Nelson Riddle to Billy May to Quincy Jones, incorporating the American jazz idiom with a fluidity that enabled him to sing above and behind the beat. He may not have been a scat-singer, but his whole conception has led even some of the greatest jazz instrumentalists of the era to characterize him as a bona fide jazz vocalist; many of these same jazz artists had learned much from him, from his phrasing, his pacing, and his interpretive, improvised ways with both the lyric and the melody.

Citing Variety, CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow characterized Sinatra's re-emergence from the ashes as one of the greatest comebacks in entertainment history. Sinatra went from the generation of the bobby-soxers to a cultural phenomenon. He and his Rat Pack, with guys like Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, single-handedly turned around the struggling casino town of Las Vegas, making it a tourist attraction that offered some of the greatest musical and comedic entertainers in the business (one of those comedians, Don Rickles, had a ball roasting Sinatra, Davis, and even Ronald Reagan; and check out Sinatra and Rickles on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show"). In these unparalleled live performances, Sinatra rarely delivered songs exactly like his classic studio recordings. He sang the hits that the crowd worshipped and adored, but he often played with both the lyrics and the audience. The Rat Pack went on to star in films together in the early 1960s, including box office hits, such as "Ocean's 11" (1960) and "Robin and the 7 Hoods" (1964). Sinatra was emerging as the "King of the Hill, Top of the Heap, A Number One," as the lyric tells us in "New York, New York." In short, he had become a genuine cultural icon.

Today, however, we live in an age where the overuse of the word "icon" has had an effect no different than the flooding of any market; its overuse makes everything iconic, and therefore, nothing. You know you've reached a stage of cultural bankruptcy when, in today's culture, Sinatra is still recognized as one of America's icons, but that he'd share that iconic status with Kim Kardashian. Not. Unlike the Kardashians who are "famous for being famous," as Barbara Walters once put it, Sinatra is an icon precisely because he was a person who was revered or idolized for his accomplishments. He is an artist whose influence spreads into genres as diverse as jazz (he was selected in a 1956 poll of jazz musicians, with affirmative votes from Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, and Carmen McRae, among others, as "the greatest-ever male vocalist") and rap; it is felt in the work of contemporary popular artists as diverse as Alicia Keys, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, John Mayer, Josh Grobin, Gavin DeGraw, and Ne-Yo. It stretches from the jazz stylings of Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael Buble, to the cabaret of Ron Hawking and Michael Feinstein ("The Sinatra Project") [YouTube link], and the rap of Jay Z (who is a master of rapping above and behind the beat). In some respects, however, Sinatra's influence isn't felt enough, and this is to the detriment of the musical world in which we live. As jazz vocalist Cassandara Wilson put it: "I wish Frank Sinatra influenced more singers today. He comes from a time when it [was] about the phrasing of a piece, the emotional content of a piece. He descended from Billie Holiday and singers who placed more emphasis on the lyrical content of the song."

Here at "Notablog," on the list called "My Favorite Songs," I have always revered and idolized Sinatra. One would think that after featuring audio clips and full-length YouTube renditions by Sinatra on over 60 songs in my ever-growing list, that we would have exhausted our supply. By some estimates, however, the Chairman of the Board (a name given to him by New York's WNEW-AM radio personality, the beloved William B. Williams) recorded over 1,200 tracks, but this includes various recordings of the same song delivered with different arrangements. Clearly, the guy spent a lot of time in the studio, when he wasn't going on global concert tours or filming another hit movie.

Given the number of Sinatra performances highlighted in "My Favorite Songs," he is, perhaps, the artist cited more than any other on my list. So, before listening to the next 19 days of songs that I will post over the coming weeks, I invite folks to check out the ones already listed: "All of Me," "All or Nothing at All," "All the Things You Are," "Angel Eyes," "Autumn in New York," "The Best is Yet to Come," "Brooklyn Bridge," "Call Me," "Call Me Irresponsible," "Change Partners," "Cheek to Cheek," "Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)," "Come Fly with Me," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Don't Take Your Love From Me," "Everything Happens To Me," "Falling in Love with Love," "The First Noel," "Fly Me To the Moon," "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)," "How About You?," "How Insensitive," "I Concentrate on You," "I Fall in Love Too Easily," "If You Go Away," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "I'll Never Smile Again," "I'm a Fool to Want You," "I Should Care," "It Was a Very Good Year," "I've Got a Crush On You," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Just Friends," "The Lady is a Tramp," "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing," "Luck Be a Lady," "Me and My Shadow," "Meditation," "Moonlight in Vermont," "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "My Buddy," "My Kind of Town," "My One and Only Love," "My Shining Hour," "My Way," "The Nearness of You," "New York, New York," "One for My Baby," "Pennies from Heaven," "Pocketful of Miracles," "Poor Butterfly," "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado)," "Someone to Light Up My Life," "The Song is You," "Spring is Here," "Summer Me, Winter Me," "Swinging on a Star," "That Old Black Magic," "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "Too Marvelous For Words," "Triste," "The Way You Look Tonight," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Wives and Lovers," "Yesterdays," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "You'll Never Know," "You'll Never Walk Alone," "You Make Me Feel So Young," and "You're Gonna Hear From Me."

Some of these songs are so closely tied to their definitive Sinatra recordings, that it is hard to listen to them coming from the voices of other singers, no matter how wonderful other renditions might be. I mean, can anyone of us honestly think of such songs as "The Best is Yet to Come," "Come Fly with Me," "Fly Me to the Moon," and "It Was a Very Good Year," without thinking of Sinatra? Charlton Heston, the Oscar-winning actor who knew one or two things about 3- and 4-hour epics, once said that every single song that Sinatra ever sang was the equivalent of a 4-minute movie, so good was he at telling a story. Sinatra sang the standards, but his own renditions of so many of these standards became the standard by which to measure other renditions. For other artists who sang these songs, the best route to success was to completely change the interpretation and arrangement. For example, I can't think of anybody but Michael Jackson performing "Billie Jean," and yet several other successful renditions have been recorded only because the interpretation of the song was dramatically altered. Chris Cornell's version, in my view, is the most successful because it is dramatically different from the original. Check it all out here.

Clearly, I have always celebrated the talents of Sinatra, the self-confessed "saloon singer," who became the epitome of cool, the essence of musical class, and, as Bono once suggested, perhaps the only Italian Francis (with apologies to the Italian man from Assisi and the humble Argentinian Pope of Italian immigrants) to provide genuine proof that God is a Catholic ([YouTube link; I'm paraphrasing Bono's introduction of Sinatra at the 1994 Grammy Awards, where The Voice was recognized as a Grammy "Living Legend").

Nearly all of the selections that will be featured in this tribute can be found on "Ultimate Sinatra," a 4-CD Centennial Edition of 101 recordings, drawn from every label under which Sinatra recorded, including Columbia Records, Capitol Records, and his own Reprise label.

I was asked by a few people if I could possibly select a Top Ten List of Sinatra Favorites, and I find it virtually impossible to rank, but I'll try a knee-jerk Top Ten, literally off-the-top of my head, in alphabetical order, rather than a ranking: "The Best is Yet to Come," "Come Fly with Me," "Fly Me to the Moon," "I Concentrate on You," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "It Was a Very Good Year," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "One for My Baby," "New York, New York" (heard at the end of every home game played by my New York Yankees), and "That's Life." But if I think about this for any more than five minutes, I'll give you a whole other list of Top Ten... so let's keep it at that!

Today's "Song of the Day" is "From This Moment On" (on Disc 2 of "Ultimate Sinatra"). Indeed, from this moment on, prepare to be entertained through December 12th. We will feature a song each day (with one tip of the Fedora in the middle of our tribute to two other artists with links to Sinatra). As I have noted, not one of these songs has ever appeared on the illustrious list assembled above, which, in itself, is a testament to the breadth and the depth of this man's magnificent artistic legacy.

September 11, 2014

WTC Remembrance: A Museum for the Ages - A Pictorial

My annual series, "Remembering the World Trade Center," turns this year to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the latter of which had not yet opened when I visited the site in 2012. It is an extraordinary experience in contrasts: ranging from sensitivity to loved ones to the barbaric savagery that snuffed out the lives of nearly 3000 people.

I invite readers to take a look at that pictorial; it can be found here.

Here is an index for those who would like easy access to the previous entries in this annual series:

2001: As It Happened . . .

2002: New York, New York

2003: Remembering the World Trade Center: A Tribute

2004: My Friend Ray

2005: Patrick Burke, Educator

2006: Cousin Scott

2007: Charlie: To Build and Rebuild

2008: Eddie Mecner, Firefighter

2009: Lenny: Losses and Loves

2010: Tim Drinan, Student

2011: Ten Years Later

2012: A Memorial for the Ages: A Pictorial

2013: My Friend Matthew: A 9/11 Baby of a Different Stripe

2014: A Museum for the Ages: A Pictorial.

October 12, 2013

Happy Birthday to Walter Grinder!

I want to take this opportunity to wish my friend and colleague, Walter Grinder, all of the health and happiness he deserves on the occasion of his 75th birthday! One fine resource for understanding Walter's gifts is a birthday link at the Free Banking site.

Walter was an important mentor to me especially during my formative years, while he was associated with the Institute for Humane Studies. His personal advice and guidance, his compassion and his wisdom, were indispensable to me. From a theoretical perspective, his work with John Hagel III on libertarianism and class analysis especially had a huge impact on the formation of my own "dialectical libertarian" perspective. I will forever be indebted to him for key observations on the nature of the state and for his encyclopedic knowledge of sources guiding me in crucially important intellectual directions.

More importantly, through the years, Walter has shown huge personal compassion toward me, in my own life-long health battles, perhaps because he, himself, has had his own share of health issues. I cannot begin to express in words just how deeply I appreciate his gifts.

A long and healthy life to a wonderful human being, colleague, and friend.

August 12, 2013

Russian Radical 2.0: The Cover

In daily posts over the course of the next five days, I am marking the publication of the second edition of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, offically scheduled for release on "Atlas Shrugged Day", 2 September 2013 . . . though, in this home, we have always known that date to be far more significant: it's my sister's birthday! And she's slightly older than Atlas. Nevertheless, more likely than not, the book will be circulating by the end of September or early October.

Published nearly two decades ago, the first edition of Russian Radical is actually celebrating its 18th anniversary this month. Also reaching its 18th birthday is my first book: Marx, Hayek, and Utopia. Tomorrow, in Part II of this series, I will present "The Cover Story" on the origins of the second edition of Russian Radical. wherein I'll have lots to say about both books.

Today, it's just The Cover. Quite literally. The clearest and boldest symbol of difference between the first and second editions of Russian Radical is illustrated by the cover. The classic 1995 first edition cover design by Steve Kress provided images of Ayn Rand, philosophy Professor N. O. Lossky, and the Peter and Paul Fortress, where, in 1924, the young Ayn Rand (nee Alissa Rosenbaum) lectured on the fortress's history.

Ayn_Rand_The_Russian_Radical 1.0

The second edition's cover design is, if you'll pardon the expression, quite a radical departure from the first edition. Those familiar with Ayn Rand will recall that her original working title for the book that was to become her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was: "The Strike." Considering how strikes were customarily tools of organized labor, Rand was engaging in a kind of linguistic subversion that was characteristic of one of her earliest philosophic influences, Friedrich Nietzsche. Rand would often use words that had negative connotations, and totally invert their meaning. Hence, for Rand, there was a "virtue" of selfishness and "capitalism" was not a system of class exploitation, but an "unknown ideal." Well, in this instance, her working title for Atlas Shrugged was her way of using the word, "Strike" in a typically ironic fashion. For Rand (spoiler alert), Atlas Shrugged explores what happens when "the men of the mind" go on strike, when men and women of distinction, across all disciplines and specialities, across the worlds of business and art, no longer wish to sanction their own victimhood. The new cover uses the strike imagery in the color scheme of the country to which Rand emigrated in 1926 (the red, white, and blue of the U.S. flag), while also using banners with touches of red and yellow (let us not forget that it was the yellow of the "hammer and sickle" that was starkly imposed on the solid red background of the communist Soviet flag). Here's the new cover, folks!

ARTRRMEDIUM978-0-271-06227-3md.jpg

March 14, 2013

Left-Libertarian Musings

I have been remiss in not mentioning that references to, and republications of, my work have been featured on the website of Center for a Stateless Society. From the mission statement of the Center:

The Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) is an anarchist think-tank and media center. Its mission is to explain and defend the idea of vibrant social cooperation without aggression, oppression, or centralized authority. In particular, it seeks to enlarge public understanding and transform public perceptions of anarchism, while reshaping academic and movement debate, through the production and distribution of market anarchist media content, both scholarly and popular, the organization of events, and the development of networks and communities, and to serve, along with the Alliance of the Libertarian Left and the Molinari Institute, as an institutional home for left-libertarian market anarchists.

One does not have to be a bona fide member of the Center, or an anarchist per se, to appreciate the fact that these folks are attempting to forge the way for a form of dialectical libertarianism, insofar as they refuse to focus strictly on the political, to the exclusion of the personal and the cultural, the social-psychological, the linguistic, the philosophical, and so forth. One of the reasons I've been critical of some forms of libertarianism is that there are what I have called "dualistic" tendencies among some libertarians to sharply separate the political from the personal and the cultural, as if dispensing with the state is all that is necessary to achieve a noncoercive society. As I have argued in my "Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy," the political is as dependent on the personal and the cultural as each of these levels is dependent on the others. It is the classic case of reciprocal interdependence:

Tri-Level Model of Power Relations in Society

My "Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy" consists of three books that proclaim the virtues of dialectical thinking in the service of a radical libertarianism. The essence of a dialectical method is that it is "the art of context-keeping." It demands that we study social problems by grasping the larger context within which they are embedded, so as to trace their myriad—and often reciprocal—causes and effects. The larger context must be viewed in terms that are both systemic and historical. By systemic, I mean that social problems need to be understood in ways that make transparent their relationships to one another—and to the larger system they constitute and that shapes them. By historical, I mean that social problems need to be grasped developmentally, that is, in ways that clarify their development over time. Grasping the larger context is indispensable to any "radical" politics worth its title. To be radical is to "go to the root." Going to the "root" of social problems requires understanding how they came about, where they might be tending, and how they may be resolved—by overturning and revolutionizing the system that generates them.

The three books of the trilogy are: Marx, Hayek, and Utopia; Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical; and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.

The first book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, published in 1995 with the State University of New York Press, draws parallels between Karl Marx and F. A. Hayek with regard to their surprisingly convergent critiques of utopianism. Both thinkers exhibit an appreciation of context in distinguishing between dialectical, radical thinking and nondialectical, utopian thinking.

The second book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, published in 1995 with Pennsylvania State University Press (and soon to be published in an expanded second edition) details Rand's approach as an instance of highly dialectical and radical thinking, which recognizes that social problems and social solutions must be understood systemically, across three distinctive, and mutually supportive, levels of generality—the personal, the cultural, and the structural, and dynamically or developmentally, inclusive of past, present, and potential future manifestations of the problems we are analyzing and attempting to resolve.

The third book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, published in 2000 by Pennsylvania State University Press, offers a re-reading of the history of dialectical thinking, and a re-definition of dialectics as indispensable to any defense of human liberty. It includes a critical discussion of the work of Murray N. Rothbard, who was one of my most important influences.

One can never be sure of every last implication of one's work when one creates it. That's the nature of what is often called an enterprise of "hermeneutics", which is a fancy term to designate the art, nature, and evolution of interpretation. As different people relate their own unique contexts of knowledge to one's work, they are more than likely to find implications in the work of which not even the author may have been aware. It therefore gives me great pleasure to see that those on the "libertarian left" are drawing from some useful aspects of my work.

Here are some of the references to, and republications of, my work at the Center for a Stateless Society:

On the Shoulders of Giants by Kevin Carson

They Saw it Coming: The 19th-Century Libertarian Critique of Fascism (translated into Spanish as Lo Vieron Venir: La Crítica Libertaria Decimonónica del Fascismo) by Roderick Long

Engagement with the Left on Free Markets by Kevin Carson

"Capitalism": The Known Reality by Chris Matthew Sciabarra (posted by James Tuttle)

A Crisis of Political Economy by Chris Matthew Sciabarra (posted by James Tuttle)

Dialectics and Liberty by Chris Matthew Sciabarra (posted by James Tuttle)

Support C4SS with Charles Johnson's "Liberty, Equality, Solidarity" by James Tuttle

October 01, 2008

A Crisis of Political Economy

Oy, what a mess.

The "mess" of which I speak is, of course, U.S. Political Economy. And make no mistake about it: We are talking about political economy.

One of the things that I have long admired about Austrian-school theorists, such as Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Murray Rothbard, is their understanding of political economy, a concept that conveys, by its very coupling, the inextricable tie between the political and the economic.

When Austrian-school theorists have examined the dynamics of market exchange, they have stressed the importance not only of the larger political context within which such exchanges take place, but also the ways in which politics influences and molds the shape and character of those exchanges. Indeed, with regard to financial institutions in particular, they have placed the state at the center of their economic theories on money and credit.

Throughout the modern history of the system that most people call "capitalism," banking institutions have had such a profoundly intimate relationship to the state that one can only refer to it as a "state-banking nexus." As I point out in my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:

A nexus is, by definition, a dialectical unity of mutual implication. Aristotle (On Generation and Corruption 2.11.338a11-15) stresses that "the nexus must be reciprocal ... the necessary occurrence of this involves the necessary occurrence of something prior; and conversely ... given the prior, it is also necessary for the posterior to come-to-be." For Aristotle, this constitutes a symbiotic "circular movement." As such, the benefits that are absorbed by the state-banking nexus are mutually reinforcing. Each institution becomes both a precondition and effect of the other.

The current state and the current banking sector require one another; neither can exist without the other. They are so reciprocally intertwined that each is an extension of the other.

Remember this point the next time somebody tells you that "free market madmen" caused the current financial crisis that is threatening to undermine the economy. There is no free market. There is no "laissez-faire capitalism." The government has been deeply involved in setting the parameters for market relations for eons; in fact, genuine "laissez-faire capitalism" has never existed. Yes, trade may have been less regulated in the nineteenth century, but not even the so-called "Gilded Age" featured "unfettered" markets.

One of the reasons I have come to dislike using the term "capitalism" is that it has never, historically, manifested fully its so-called "unknown ideals." Real, actual, historically specific "capitalism" has always entailed the intervention of the state. And that intervention has always had a class character; that is, the actions of the state have always, and must always, benefit some groups differentially at the expense of others.

Mises understood this when he constructed his theory of money and credit. For Mises, there is no such thing as a "neutral" government action, just as surely as there is no such thing as "neutral" money. As he pointed out in his Theory of Money and Credit (pdf at that link), "[c]hanges in the quantity of money and in the demand for money . . . never occur for all individuals at the same time and to the same degree and they therefore never affect their judgments of value to the same extent and at the same time." Mises traced how, with the erosion of a gold standard, an inflation of the money supply would diffuse slowly throughout the economy, benefiting those, such as banks and certain capital-intensive industries, who were among its early recipients.

One of the reasons a gold standard was abandoned is that a gold standard is incompatible with a structural policy of inflation and with a system heavily dependent on government interventionism.

The profiteers of systematic inflation are not difficult to pinpoint. Taking their lead from Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard and such New Left revisionist historians as Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein, Walter Grinder and John Hagel III point out in their classic article, "Toward a Theory of State Capitalism: Ultimate Decision-Making and Class Structure" (pdf at that link):

Historically, state intervention in the banking system has been one of the earliest forms of intervention in the market system. In the U.S., this intervention initially involved sporadic measures, both at the federal and state level, which generated inflationary distortion in the monetary supply and cyclical disruptions of economic activity. The disruptions which accompanied the business cycle were a major factor in the transformation of the dominant ideology in the U.S. from a general adherence to laissez-faire doctrines to an ideology of political capitalism which viewed the state as a necessary instrument for the rationalization and stabilization of an inherently unstable economic order. This transformation in ideology paved the way for the full-scale cartellization of the banking sector through the Federal Reserve System. The pressure for systematic state intervention in the banking sector originated both among the banks themselves and from certain industries which, because of capital intensive production processes and long lead-times, sought the stability necessary for the long-term planning of their investment strategies. The historical evidence confirms that the Federal Reserve legislation and other forms of state intervention in the banking sector during the first decades of the twentieth century received active support from influential banking and industrial interests. ...
Most importantly, however, cartellization of banking activity permits banks to inflate their asset base systematically. The creation of assets made possible by these measures to a great extent frees the banking institutions from the constraints imposed by the passive form of ultimate decision-making exercised by their depositors. It thereby considerably strengthens the ultimate decision-making authority held by banks vis a vis their depositors. The inflationary trends resulting from the creation of assets tend to increase the ratio of external financing to internal financing in large corporations and, as a consequence, the ultimate decision-making power of banking institutions increase over the activities of industrial corporations. Since the capital market naturally emerges as a strategic locus of ultimate decision-making in market economies, it is reasonable to assume that, by virtue of their intimate ties with the state apparatus, banking institutions will acquire an additional function within the state capitalist system, serving as an intermediary between the leading economic interests and the state.

So one of the major consequences of inflation (especially in a monetary system stripped of a gold standard) is a shift of wealth and income toward banks and their beneficiaries. But this financial interventionism also sets off a process that Hayek would have dubbed a "road to serfdom," for inflation introduces a host of distortions into the delicate structure of investment and production, setting off boom-and-bust, and "a process of retrogression from a relatively free market to a system characterized by an increasingly fascistic set of economic relationships," as Grinder and Hagel put it.

Just as the institution of central banking generates a "process of retrogression" at home, engendering additional domestic interventions that try to "correct" for the very distortions, conflicts, and contradictions it creates, so too does it make possible a structure of foreign interventions. In fact, it can be said that the very institution of central banking was born, as Rothbard argues in The Mystery of Banking (pdf at that link), "as a crooked deal between a near bankrupt government and a corrupt clique of financial promoters" in an effort to sustain British colonialism. The reality is not much different today, but it is a bit more complex in terms of the insidious means by which government funds wars, and thereby undermines a productive economy. (Of course, the funding itself benefits certain interests too, but we'll leave our sermon on the "military-industrial complex" for another day.)

So where does this leave us today?

Much has already been said about the most recent financial crisis, viewed from a radical libertarian and Austrian perspective, which helps to clarify its interventionist roots (see, for example, the links in "The Bailout Reader"). The seeds for this particular crisis were planted some years ago but the interventionist policies now being proposed and implemented have been around even longer. They are tried and true methods of further concentrating the power of "ultimate decision-making" in the state-banking nexus. (Indeed, as Robert Higgs notes, even the Federal "authority" to take over AIG is rooted in a Depression-era law. See also this post by David Theroux and the links therein, as well as commentary by Ron Paul and Sheldon Richman.)

On the current crisis, Steven Horwitz has written a superb open letter to those on the left, from which I'd like to quote at length. It explains the origins of the housing bubble in the creation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and places that crisis in a wider political-economic context shaped by governmental and Federal Reserve policies. By all means, read Horwitz's whole essay, and follow the links therein as well, which are missing in the passage cited here:

For starters, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are "government sponsored enterprises." Though technically privately owned, they have particular privileges granted by the government, they are overseen by Congress, and, most importantly, they have operated with a clear promise that if they failed, they would be bailed out. ... In 1995, Fannie and Freddie were given permission to enter the subprime market and regulators began to crack down on banks who were not lending enough to distressed areas. ... In addition, Congress explicitly directed Fannie and Freddie to expand their lending to borrowers with marginal credit as a way of expanding homeownership. What all of these [policies] did together was to create an enormous profit and political incentives for banks and Fannie and Freddie to lend more to riskier low-income borrowers. However well-intentioned the attempts were to extend homeownership to more Americans, forcing banks to do so and artificially lowering the costs of doing so are a huge part of the problem we now find ourselves in.
At the same time, home prices were rising making those who had taken on large mortgages with small down payments feel as though they could handle them and inspiring a whole variety of new mortagage instruments. What's interesting is that the rise in prices affected most strongly cities with stricter land-use regulations, which also explains the fact that not every city was affected to the same degree by the rising home values. ...
While all of this was happpening, the Federal Reserve, nominally private but granted enormous monopoly privileges by government, was pumping in the credit and driving interest rates lower and lower. [Ah... one way to keep those funds flowing for the Iraq war... --CS] This influx of credit further fueled the borrowing binge. With plenty of funds available, thanks to your friendly monopoly central bank (hardly the free market at work), banks could afford to continue to lend riskier and riskier.
The final chapter of the story is that in 2004 and 2005, following the accounting scandals at Freddie, both Freddie and Fannie paid penance to Congress by agreeing to expand their lending to low-income customers. Both agreed to acquire greater amounts of subprime and Alt-A loans, sending the green light to banks to originate them. From 2004 to 2006, the percentage of loans in those riskier categories grew from 8% to 20% of all US mortgage originations. ... The banks were taking on riskier borrowers, but knew they had a guaranteed buyer for those loans in Fannie and Freddie, back[ed], of course, by us taxpayers. Yes, banks were "greedy" for new customers and riskier loans, but they were responding to incentives created by well-intentioned but misguided government interventions. It is these interventions that are ultimately responsible for the risky loans gone bad that are at the center of the current crisis, not the "free market."
The current mess is ... clearly shot through and through with government meddling with free markets, from the Fed-provided fuel to the CRA and land-use regulations to Fannie and Freddie creating an artificial market for risky mortgages in order to meet Congress's demands for more home-ownership opportunities for low-income families. Thanks to that intervention, many of those families have not only lost their homes, but also the savings they could have held onto for a few more years and perhaps used to acquire a less risky mortgage on a cheaper house. All of these interventions into the market created the incentive and the means for banks to profit by originating loans that never would have taken place in a genuinely free market.
It is worth noting that these regulations, policies, and interventions were often gladly supported by the private interests involved. Fannie and Freddie made billions while home prices rose, and their CEOs got paid lavishly. The same was true of the various banks and other mortgage market intermediaries who helped spread and price the risk that was in play, including those who developed all kinds of fancy new financial instruments all designed to deal with the heightened risk of default the intervention brought with it. This was a wonderful game they were playing and the financial markets were happy to have Fannie and Freddie as voracious buyers of their risky loans, knowing that US taxpayer dollars were always there if needed. The history of business regulation in the US is the history of firms using regulation for their own purposes, regardless of the public interest patina over the top of them. This is precisely what happened in the housing market. And it's also why calls for more regulation and more intervention are so misguided: they have failed before and will fail again because those with the profits on the line are the ones who have the resources and access to power to ensure that the game is rigged in their favor.

This is precisely correct; indeed, there are those of a certain political bent, who might seek to place blame for the current financial crisis on the recipients of subprime mortgages, particularly those in minority communities. But if elements of the current housing bubble can be traced to Clinton administration attempts to appeal to traditional Democratic voting blocs, it's not as if the banks were dragged kicking and screaming into lending those mortgages. This is, in a nutshell, the whole problem, the whole history, of government intervention, as Horwitz argues. Even if a case can be made that the road to this particular "housing bubble" hell was paved with the "good intentions" of those who wanted to nourish an "ownership society," their actions necessarily generated deleterious "unintended consequences." When governments have the power to set off such a feeding frenzy, government power becomes the only power worth having, as Hayek observed so long ago. If our Presidential candidates wish to end the influence of Washington lobbyists, they should consider ending the power of Washington to dispense privilege. Because that privilege will always be dispensed in ways that benefit "ultimate decision-makers."

It is not simply that intervention breeds corruption; it's that corruption is inherent in the process itself.

It is therefore no surprise that the loudest advocates for the effective nationalization of the finance industry are to be found on Wall Street; at this point, failing financiers welcome any government actions that will socialize their risks. But such actions that socialize "losses while keeping the profits in private hands" are a hallmark of fascist and neofascist economies. They are just another manifestation of "Horwitz's First Law of Political Economy": "no one hates capitalism more than capitalists."

In the end, the proposed Paulson Plan is nothing more than a "heist," as Robert P. Murphy argues, "a grand scheme in which the public will end up owing hundreds of billions of dollars to holders of new debt claims issued by the US Treasury." Such a plan will only compound the problem. As Frank Shostak explains, government policies that try to prevent

a fall in the stock market cannot prevent a fall in the real economy. In fact, the real economy has already been damaged by the previous loose monetary stance. All that the fall in the stock market does is inform us about the true state of economic conditions. The fall in the price of stocks just puts things in a proper perspective. The fall in the stock price is just an acknowledgment of reality.

By not allowing market participants to work through the distortions therein created, government might very well plunge "the economy into the mother of all recessions."

Of course, there is a lot more that needs to be done to correct this economy structurally, but have no fear: Such structural change will not come to this economy without fundamental intellectual and cultural change. That, my friends, is not on the menu. The chefs who prepare the current menu of "choices" belong to a loosely defined political-economic class, centered around that "state-banking nexus" I mentioned earlier. The "choices" they offer might modify the regulations here or there, free up some institutions, while regulating others more heavily. They can only hope that their limited choices will guide them out of the current crisis, while still enabling them to retain their hold on "ultimate decision-making." And they have been, in the past, remarkably effective at steering a course between "extremes," which is why the system has never toppled. (With regard to the "stability" of the current system, I strongly recommend a book by Sanford Ikeda on the Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism, though it might make you feel that we're doomed and that nothing will ever change fundamentally.)

If all of this sounds diabolically conspiratorial, well, it is, in a sense, even if the "ultimate decision-makers" are not getting together in a single room trying to hatch the next great conspiracy. In fact, the reality is uglier: The culture of conspiracy is such that these plans are being hatched, ad hoc, by those within that state-banking nexus, presented to the public as the next great "rescue plan" for the "common good." Yet nobody inside or outside that nexus has the knowledge to coordinate any centrally-guided plan to "correct" the economy. But try to "correct" it, they will. Lord help us.

That's why, I maintain, it does not matter one iota who gets elected President. The emphases might vary slightly under Obama or McCain, but the fundamentals of U.S. political economy, and, I should add, U.S. foreign policy, will not change. Indeed, even for those of us who view the current Bush administration as the worst in our history, well, certainly the worst in our lifetime.... it is clear that nothing proposed by Obama or McCain is going to change the structural defects of this system.

It is the government's monetary, fiscal, and global policies that have created insurmountable debt and record budget deficits, speculative booms and bubble bursts. In such a "crisis of global statism," nationalizations and bailouts are not the only goodies in this "rescue package," being wrapped up as an unwanted gift for taxpayers. And because there is an organic link between domestic and foreign policy, be prepared for even more tragic fiscal and monetary irresponsibility at home, and an ever-expanding institutionalized war abroad.

Indeed, the "ultimate decision-makers" of U.S. political economy have a host of new battlefields on which to wage war, both literally and figuratively, in their efforts to stabilize the ship of state. None of the choices being offered will challenge their hegemony or topple them from their positions of power.

But a war beckons; it is primarily an intellectual and cultural one, and it must begin by questioning the fundamental basis of the current system---in any effort to overturn it.

Mentioned at L&P and Mises.org.

September 11, 2008

A Judge Who Bore Witness

Father Mychal F. Judge is officially listed as Victim 0001 of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Judge was a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest who, in 1992, was appointed Chaplain of the Fire Department of New York. On that terrible morning in 2001, Judge arrived on the scene, comforting those who were working heroically in the rescue efforts. He administered last rites to many of the victims. But when the South Tower collapsed, and the debris filled the lobby of the North Tower, Judge became one of those victims.

Many remember that photo of the departed Father Judge, whose body was recovered from the Pit. A lifeless pose that resembled a modern American Pieta.

On Tuesday, I posted the newest installment of my annual series, "Remembering the World Trade Center," a portrait of firefighter Eddie Mecner. Today, I'd like to remember the efforts of Father Judge.

Last week, the New York Daily News published an excerpt from a new book about Father Judge, written by News correspondent Michael Daly. The book is entitled The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge. Daly reminds us that, before his death, Judge bore witness to some of the most horrific images in our city's history. Daly writes:

He and the firefighters around him were witnessing an elemental law of nature by which a falling object accelerates at 32 feet per second minus the particular air resistance, be the object a lead weight dropped by Galileo from the Tower of Pisa or a human being leaping from the upper floors of One World Trade Center.
Male or female, young or old, healthy or ill, urban or suburban, black or white or Hispanic or Asian, married or single, parent or childless, straight or gay, rich or poor, generous or miserly, kind or cruel, fierce or meek, virtuous or sinful, dreamy or practical, toned or flabby, Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu, all fell at the same ever increasing rate. The only variations were density and surface area. Mundane business papers wafted gently down, but even the most decent person was soon plummeting at nearly 150 miles per hour.
Those who leapt from the topmost floors of the North Tower fell for as long as nine seconds. The people on the floors closest to where the plane actually hit had maybe seven seconds, still time to think of loved ones and pray to their particular notion of the Almighty. A Roman Catholic, for example, would have been able to say a Hail Mary, but not an entire Act of Contrition.
Everybody had time to utter "Oh, God!" or "God, no!" or some another plea even nonbelievers cry at the onrush of death. All likely remained as keenly conscious as skydivers.
Some jumped together, holding hands. Most leapt one at a time, often tumbling as they fell. At least one man stayed feet first, his red and blue tie streaming above him. But most were on their backs as they reached the lower floors, facing the heavens if not necessarily heaven. Their last sight was of the perfect baby blue sky as they struck the pavement with a velocity that instantly turned a living person into a bright red splatter. The sound was jarring, loud, a body becoming a bomb.

As has been observed before, it is hard to fathom the awful conditions faced by those in the Towers, such that jumping was the better alternative.

There is so much politics that surrounds this date: The politics of the Middle East. The politics of US foreign policy. The context that these colliding forces provided as the backdrop for the events that were to transpire. And the tragic human consequences that have followed in its wake. Notablog readers know well my own views on many of these issues.

For those of us who lost friends and neighbors on this horrific date, however, there will always be the act of remembrance. It is a defiant act insofar as it compels us to comprehend causes and consequences. But it is also an act of honor toward Father Judge, and those like him, who went to their deaths seven years ago on this date.

February 19, 2008

JARS Call for Papers: Ayn Rand and War

The new issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies has been published (see here). It marks the beginning of our ninth year.

This means, of course, that next year, JARS will be celebrating its Tenth Anniversary. As part of our Tenth Anniversary year, we are already scheduled to publish a major symposium on "Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche."

We are also issuing another Call for Papers on the topic of "Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and War." The deadline for proposals is July 1, 2008; the deadline for papers is October 15, 2008.

We are interested in papers that cover any aspect of this very broad topic: Rand's view of war; defenses or critiques of Rand-influenced views of "just war," the current war or past wars, terrorism, "collateral damage," torture, the relationship between domestic and foreign policy, etc.

We are less interested in discussions of "current events"—except insofar as they illustrate broader principles. Remember that we are a semi-annual and that the state of "current events" will change considerably before these essays are brought to print.

Submissions should adhere to our style guidelines; proposals should be submitted via email to me: chris DOT sciabarra AT nyu DOT edu

Cross-posted at L&P.

November 01, 2006

Mid-Term Elections, 2006

I've received a bit of email from people who were wondering why it is I have not commented on the upcoming mid-term elections. "Sciabarra, you're a political scientist, for Chrissake! What do you think?"

Well, let's leave aside the question of how much science goes into politics: It's always nice to know that some people find value in what I say. But with all due respect: There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. I have not changed my views of this two-party, two-pronged attack on individual freedom by one iota: A Pox on Both Their Houses! In truth, however, the modern Democratic Party has always been honest about its Big Government agenda. But the "small-government" GOP has long embraced the politics of Big Government. As the majority party, they are a total, unmitigated disaster for individual liberty, whether they are religious rightists or so-called "progressive conservatives"—who are actually much truer to the GOP's 19th-century interventionist roots than so-called "Goldwater" or "Reagan" Republicans (those who embraced the rhetoric of limited government, while still paving the way for a growth in the scope of government intervention). You have to chuckle when even Hillary Clinton sees the hypocrisy: "The people who promised less government," she said, "have instead given us the largest and least competent government we have ever had."

Still, I must admit that my political perversity would like very much to see the Bush administration get a royal slap across the face, such that the Democrats take the House of Representatives and, at the very least, close the gap in the GOP-controlled Senate. This is purely a strategic desire: Party divisions can have utility in frustrating the power-lust on both ends. In any event, I think it's probably true that the GOP will suffer a setback, and I have been saying so for over a year.

Please understand, however: THIS WILL DO NOTHING TO CHANGE THE CURRENT DOMESTIC OR FOREIGN POLICY DISASTERS. I don't mean to shout, but with regard to foreign policy alone: The Democrats handed this administration the current foreign policy debacle on a silver platter. They will not challenge one inch of the Bush administration's Iraq policy or its ideological rationalizations for that policy: that "democracy" can be imposed on societies that have little or no appreciation of the complex cultural roots of human freedom.

Either way, I'll be watching the results of politics-as-bloodsport on Tuesday, November 7th.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted at L&P.

April 18, 2006

Jason Dixon Interviews Me

Today, I publish a Notablog exclusive: An interview of me conducted by Jason Dixon. The interview was conducted in late 2005-early 2006, but is finally seeing the light of day here at Notablog.

Check it out:

An Interview Conducted by Jason Dixon

Comments welcome. Also noted at L&P.

March 22, 2006

Iraq: A Perception Problem?

Today, ABC's "Good Morning America" reported on the Bush administration's claim that "negative" stories on the war in Iraq are playing right into the hands of the "enemy," and that the press is to blame for the sagging public support of the war. Bush's declining poll numbers are the result of negative publicity.

Such sagging public support, of course, has nothing to do with any erosion of the public's faith in the administration's competence, eh? Or the fact that Iraq is steeped in sectarian conflict, careening toward civil war? Nah. Nothing to do with those things.

On one level, of course, Bush is absolutely right: The press tends to focus on car bombs and murders and kidnappings as news. Well. DUH. Pick up any newspaper and the story is the same locally. Watch any local news broadcast and the story is the same there too. The news often reads or sounds like a police blotter. That has been the tendency in local news for as long as I've been alive. Why on earth would this tendency be different on a national or global level? Crime is news in this culture, and whether the criminals are local thugs or foreign ones, the play's the same.

But there is no direct correlation between news coverage and public perception, unless one believes that people are sheeple. Interestingly, even though NYC newspapers and newscasts focus on local crime all the time, it has not altered the public perception that crime is down in the Big Apple, as part of a long-term trend. And there is a good reason for this public perception: Crime is down. In reality. There were over 2,600 people murdered in NYC in 1990; that number dropped to under 600 by 2004. Whatever the continuing negative focus of the press, the reality of life in this city has inspired people's positive perceptions.

Perhaps the Bush administration needs its own reality check. The downturn in public opinion on the Iraq war is not simply the result of press brainwashing. The public perception has changed because things in reality are not going as well in Iraq as the administration claims.

I guess the administration is just frustrated with the "reality-based community." And here they thought that they created their own reality.

What is the administration's alternative? Planting positive stories in the press? Paying off journalists who ask sympathetic questions? Or maybe the press should simply be "embedded" into an official Ministry of Propaganda.

Sigh.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to L&P.

March 17, 2006

Chuck Hagel vs. Neocon Numbskulls

Readers of Notablog know that I've been hard at work on the Spring 2006 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. I anticipate completing the current issue sometime in April, and sending it off to the printer sometime thereafter. I should be returning at that point to more regular blogging beyond my "Song of the Day" feature.

In truth, however, I've been utterly uninterested in blogging about current events. What on earth could I possibly say about, say, U.S. foreign policy, that I have not already said time and time again? I am so utterly and completely disgusted by the state of American politics in general and the state of American foreign policy in particular. I don't know what I could possibly say now that I have not already said a thousand or so times over the past 4 or 5 years. For example, I warned about the dangers of sectarian violence in Iraq long before the US invaded that country. I have also gone on and on and on about the geopolitical farce of imposing "democracy" on countries that have no history of democratic institutions.

So, in lieu of saying anything new, I thought I'd cite a point made by GOP Senator Chuck Hagel. Take it away, Chuck:

You cannot in my opinion just impose a democratic form of government on a country with no history and no culture and no tradition of democracy.

Yeah. How 'bout that? Now, try explaining that elementary principle to the neocon numbskulls still inhabiting the Bush administration like Dino DNA in Jurassic amber.

I'll have more to say about all this and more when this JARS editing is done. For now, let me just say on this very narrow point: "Bravo, Senator Hagel!"

Comments welcome. Cross-posted at L&P.

February 02, 2006

Ayn Rand: Centenary Plus One

Having written quite a bit in celebration of the Ayn Rand Centenary last year, there is not much I can add this year, except to note a few very provocative posts on Rand published by my colleagues, Roderick Long and Sheldon Richman. At L&P, Roderick writes of "Ayn Rand's Left-Libertarian Legacy," and at "Free Association," Sheldon discusses Rand here and here. Both cite my own article on Rand's radicalism as applied to the realm of foreign policy: "Understanding the Global Crisis: Reclaiming Rand's Radical Legacy" (PDF version).

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the points therein made, I think it is terrific that more and more people are grappling critically with Rand's legacy, and practicing that Spanish proverb that Rand and her associates uttered on more than one occasion: "Take what you want, and pay for it"... that is, in this context, acknowledge what you've learned from Rand, and take responsibility for your own integrations and conclusions.

It's one of the chief means by which ideas filter throughout an intellectual culture.

Happy Birthday, Ayn Rand!

Comments welcome.

January 26, 2006

Not-a-Blog-ing

I've often told friends and correspondents that I am not a blogger. I am a writer and an editor who happens to blog occasionally. Even the name of this blog was born of a belief that it was "Not A Blog," though it has quite clearly evolved into one. It was for that reason that I altered the name of the blog subtly, some time ago, closing the spaces in its title and proclaiming it "Notablog."

I know there are many bloggers out there who comment on the events of the day ... sometimes on the events of the hour ... quite regularly. But I must admit that this sort of thing never truly interested me. How many times can I fulminate over this or that trend in domestic politics or foreign policy? How many times can I express my disgust with the Bush administration, while having equal animosity toward its Democratic "opponents"? How many times can I repeat the mantra that cultural change is a precursor to fundamental political change and that, for example, when you embrace democracy without certain cultural preconditions, you get majoritarian results in the Middle East that empower and legitimize theocratic, fundamentalist, and/or militant forces?

And so on, and so on ...

Though I don't post daily discussions on fiery political topics and substantive philosophical and ideological issues, I just don't see the usefulness of repeating myself over and over and over again about the same stuff day-in, day-out. And if I did, I'd get no other work done!

So, in its place, you get a "Song of the Day," that has run daily since September 1, 2004, except when I dimmed the lights for three days after my dog Blondie's passing. Yeah, you still get my thoughts on radical politics and my occasional fulminations, you still get articles and announcements, but, to paraphrase Emma Goldman: If I can't dance or sing, I want no part of the revolution.

Though I love engagement and participating in dialogue, I am curiously autocratic where my "Songs of the Day" are concerned: I continue the policy of closing those selections to all discussion because my choices are not up for debate. Yes, I can enjoy discussing the historical background of a song and the virtues or vices of a particular rendition, or even a particular artist or composer, and I do welcome private notes from Notablog readers on such topics. But I think it would be terribly counterproductive and awfully time-consuming to engage in a constant public reaffirmation of my musical tastes, which are quite eclectic, as Notablog readers regularly note. (They match my intellectual tastes, which are equally eclectic, since I've learned from the left, right, and center...) So, if you don't like my songs, or a particular song, fine. Get your own blog and make your own list! :)

In the meanwhile, if you don't see any non-Song entry posted on a given day, be sure to check out the lively comments pages. For example, the discussion of "Brokeback Mountain" continues, and should pick up steam as we enter Oscar season. I welcome additional comments on this and on any other subject open to reader input.

I should also state that I get lots of private email and I do answer every letter I receive. It may take me time, but I get to every note. And many of those emails are worthy of longer blog posts. But I treat private correspondence as personal, and unless I ask permission, readers won't see their private thoughts on public display here.

Occasionally, however, I get an email whose topic might benefit readers more generally. I hope to publish a few of these correspondences soon enough, including one later today on Rand studies.

So, for now, I just want to thank all of you for your loyal readership and your continuing personal support.

Comments welcome.

January 05, 2006

David Mayer's Annual Report on "Prospects for Liberty"

Readers should check out historian David Mayer's whirlwind annual survey of the "Prospects for Liberty." Mayer examines everything from the "welfare-state mindset" and "the disappointing Bush presidency" to the threats posed by various stripes of fundamentalists (Islamic, Christian, "radical environmentalist," etc.). He also focuses some attention on the "Demopublican/Replicrat Monopoly" and the "Collectivist Bias of Intellectual Elites."

I always enjoy reading Mayer's work, and find myself in agreement with him on so many significant issues. Hardly surprising since I'd certainly qualify as among those he characterizes as "Radical Individualists."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that he cites my own work in his most recent survey. Mayer writes:

In an insightful essay, "Understanding the Global Crisis," published in the May-June 2003 issue of The Free Radical, Chris Matthew Sciabarra has written persuasively about the reasons to be wary of any long-term U.S. expansion in the region. As he has noted, "The lunacy of nation-building and of imposed political settlements which have been tried over and over again in the Middle East with no long-term success does not mean that there is no hope for the Arab world." Citing evidence suggesting a rising revolt against theocracy, especially among a younger generation of Iranians who "eat American foods, wear American jeans, and watch American TV shows" and thus are fed up with oppressive government, he adds, "I dont see how a U.S. occupation in any part of the region will nourish this kind of revolt. If anything, the United States may be perceived as a new colonial administrator. Such a perception may only give impetus to the theocrats who may seek to preserve their rule by deflecting the dissatisfaction in their midst toward the 'infidel occupiers.' I can think of no better ad campaign for the recruitment of future Islamic terrorists." Sadly, the story of the U.S. occupation of Iraq seems to have proved Sciabarras prediction to be right.
The United States and the rest of the Western world must use military force, as appropriate, to defend themselves against the threat posed by fanatical Islamists. Our past policies of appeasement toward Islamic terrorism have proven to be failures, but we should not adopt policies of overreaction that will be failure in the opposite direction. Of course, we are right to strike back against those who initiate force and even to strike preemptively or unilaterally against imminent threats to American security, as Chris Sciabarra notes. Nevertheless, I also find persuasive his argument that "America's only practical long-term course of action is strategic disengagement from the region," meaning the entire Middle East. Like Sciabarra, "in the long term, I stand with those American Founding Fathers who advocated free trade with all, entangling political alliances with none. If that advice was good for a simpler world, it is even more appropriate for a world of immense complexity, in which no one power can control for all the myriad unintended consequences of human action. The central planners of socialism learned this lesson some time ago; the central planners of a projected U.S. colonialism have yet to learn it."

Go read the whole of Mayer's article here.

Comments welcome.

December 22, 2005

ARI, Iraq, and Healthy Dissent

I received a note from my pal Chip Gibbons, who runs The Binary Circumstance. His post, "Ayn Rand: The Roots of War," which I applauded back in May 2004, has inspired a recent exchange. A voicer there states that Chip was being unfair in his criticism of the Ayn Rand Institute as an organization in favor of the war in Iraq. The writer states that "ARI scholars repeatedly and consistently attack the war in Iraqfrom Leonard Peikoff, whose essay 'Iraq: The Wrong War' is available on-line, to Yaron Brook who has lectured both on the morality of war in general and the immorality of US involvement in Iraq and of the neo-con position in general..." The voicer believes that only The Intellectual Activist has been "mildly pro-Iraq War" and has been "subjected ... to some heavy criticism of late."

Chip responds to the voicer, stating that he published this piece 18 months ago, and that even the commentators back then observed the pro-Iraq war stance of the ARI-affiliated writers of whom he spoke. (He notes too that ARI had even displayed the Israeli flag on its site back then.) But Chip is clearly encouraged by any change in opinion at this point.

In actuality, many ARI-affiliated writers have claimed that Iran was the country to attack, but, early on, they fully supported the war to topple Saddam Hussein as a way-station to get to Syria and Iran. (Yaron Brook's recent lectures on neoconservatism and Iraq, notwithstanding, he too favors military action against Iran.) The chorus of boos against the neocons is something, however, that is a bit more recent in ARI ranks. To my knowledge, those boos were not articulated anywhere on the ARI site in the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

To his credit, Leonard Peikoff has been the most critical of that war (but please note that the cited criticism of Iraq as the "wrong war" is an article he published in 1997 against the Clinton administration ... not anything he said in the immediate aftermath of 9/11). Peikoff has also been intensely critical of Bush, and, in my view, his repudiation of Bush's religious agenda is right-on-target.

Still, pre-Iraq war articles on the ARI site certainly advocated invading Iraq (a useful compendium of quotes can be found here, whether one agrees or disagrees with the overall thrust of the site on which it is published). For example, see an essay by Peter Schwartz, entitled "War and Morality."

To his credit, Schwartz has been critical of "nation-building," but he did support the invasion of Iraq. My critique of him is indexed here, and my discussion of Schwartz's position on the Iraq war can be found here.

Also see Robert Tracinski's essay: "The Iraq Charade." The voicer at Chip's place is correct that Tracinski's Intellectual Activist has been the most vocal ARIan proponent of the war in Iraq. Tracinski's magazine, in fact, published "The Case Against Iraq" in October 2002, written by Christian Beenfeldt. Beenfeldt wrote that "it is either war against Iraq or continued passivity. A successful campaign against Iraq could serve as a model of American unilateralism and preemptive response, thus becoming a stepping-stone for future actions against Iran and other states. We must make war against Iraq as a next step in a full campaign to eradicate the long line of regimes that want to destroy the West."

In May 2003, Tracinski himself applauded the war: "The war in Iraq is over. The only resistance that remains, as this issue goes to press, is a series of sniper and grenade attacks from isolated bands of fighters ..." And he too saw it as a stepping stone to Syria, Iran, etc.

And in the June 2003 issue of TIA, Tracinski also applauds the President for seeing this as merely one "battle" in a larger war, and he argues that "'nation-building' can be a legitimate task of our militaryif it is in America's interest. In the case of Iraq, it is clearly in our interests to ensure that, having overthrown one dangerous totalitarian regime, we do not allow another to replace it. And more: a pro-liberty, pro-American government in Iraq can serve as a strategic base from which to threaten neighboring regimes in Iran and Syriaand as an oil-rich ally to use as diplomatic and economic leverage against the corrupt Saudis. To achieve these benefits, America must remain in Iraq, using our military to help create and support a better Iraqi government, rather than hastily withdrawing and allowing others to fill the power vacuum."

I'd say that view is pretty much in-line with on-the-record and off-the-record Bush administration strategic statements on the war.

Now, it is entirely true and must be acknowledged that many articles written by ARI-affiliated writers after the war became increasingly critical of the Iraq policythank goodness. Readers can trace that development here. I, myself, have cited some of those articles approvingly, including Elan Journo's essay.

I'd like to think that people such as Chip, Arthur Silber, me, and others played a part in persuading some of Rand's latter-day followers of the problems inherent in the pro-Iraq war position, but I see no explicit indication or citation of anything any of us wrote at that time or since.

In light of all this, I do believe that it is incorrect to use a broad stroke in painting all ARI-affiliated writers as pro-Iraq war. I think it is a sign of healthy dissent that many writers affiliated with ARI are disagreeing with one another on these important issues of war and peace. There is no ARI ideological monolith on this question, and this is good.

This is not to say that problems don't exist in the views of some writers affiliated with ARI, TOC, or any number of Objectivist organizations. I conclude this post with a lengthy passage from my article, "Understanding the Global Crisis: Reclaiming Rand's Radical Legacy." That article was written in March 2003, and published in May-June 2003 in The Free Radical. I stand by every last word:

The response of Objectivists to the prospect of this kind of U.S. occupation [of Iraq[ has been mostly positive (with a few notable exceptions, e.g., Arthur Silber at The Light of Reason). Robert Tracinski, for example, rightfully criticizes the pragmatism and religiosity of the Bush administration, which pays no attention to "context or history" ("The Era of Muddling Through: How We Got Here and Why We're Still Moving," TIA, March 2003). But this does not stop Tracinski from applauding Bush for "a breathtakingly new grand strategy to remake the Middle East," a policy that Tracinski admits "is a kind of indirect colonialism. The colonial administrators will be the nominally independent leaders of Middle Eastern countriesbut the essence of their form of government and their foreign policy will be inspired or imposed by the United States of America." Deriding the muddling ways of "Old Europe," Tracinski suggests approval of the U.S. ambition "to remake the world, sweeping aside hostile regimes and securing America's safety" ("New Hollywood and Old Europe," TIA, March 2003).
William Thomas writes ("What Warrants War? The Challenge of Iraq and North Korea") that "[t]he Objectivist view of foreign policy derives from its view of morality. Just as each person should pursue his rational self-interest in his personal matters, so should a proper government uphold the interests of its citizens in its conduct toward other nations." Thomas goes on to say that it is a "basic tenet" of "Objectivist political philosophy . . . that the only just governments are the free countriesand all the free countries are natural allies. Free countries are those that essentially embrace the principles of liberty, including freedoms of speech and assembly, competitive elections, the rule of law, and property rights." In Thomas's well-reasoned discussion of principles, the New Fascism is never mentioned. And though he admits that certain foreign policy goals require us "to hold our noses" when entering into "alliance[s] of convenience" with less free countries, he does not seem to appreciate the extent to which such pragmatic considerations have brought the globe to the current crisis.
In the end, however, Thomas supported the war in Iraqand a possible war with North Korea as well. He sees the post-war reconstruction as a requirement, "the only means of eliminating the longer-term threat." Keeping the peace, funding our allies, and building a free Iraq, will require "billions upon billions of dollars . . . for reconstruction and re-education." Reconstruction? Re-education? Funding our allies? I am tempted to ask the perennial Randian question: At whose expense?
To his credit, Thomas recognizes that "if it is culturally or financially infeasible to transform . . . enemies into alliesor at least into stable, non-threatening regimes, then war will not resolve the longer-term threat . . ." To his credit, Thomas accepts the possibility that U.S. occupation might "fuel anti-Americanism throughout the region." To his credit, Thomas understands "that political policy is a symptom, but culture is the root cause." Still, he supports the risk of war and a long-term occupation that empowers "better educated" and "more secular" Iraqis, so as to "cement the transformation" of other Middle Eastern nations.
To "cement the transformation" is [ARI-affiliated writer] Ron Pisaturo's goal as well. Except that he offers a much more robust strategy. Writing in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster, Pisaturo is an unabashed Objectivist advocate of a new U.S. colonialism ("Why and How to Conquer the Savages," Capitalism Magazine).
Pisaturo begins on the correct premisethat Americans have the right to defend themselves from murderous attacks. But he goes further: He urges the creation of a new Middle East as if from a state of nature; his regional tabula rasa, however, requires the "nuclear" incineration of millions of "savages" in order to start from scratch. Pisaturo stands, like Archimedes, outside the context he wishes to reconstruct. His canvas-cleaning strategy is the logically horrific conclusion and destructive essence of his utopianism. It applies literally to 'no-where' on earththough, in all fairness, the Brave No-World of Ron Pisaturo is far more dystopian than it is utopian.
According to Pisaturo, the U.S. must crush all the "evil governments" of the Middle East (e.g., Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other "murderous regimes"). This is a sentiment shared by his Ayn Rand Institute colleagues, including Yaron Brook (ARI Media, 10 April 2003) and Leonard Peikoff ("America versus Americans," Ford Hall Forum, 7 April 2003)both of whom see Iran as the next target in the war against Islamic fundamentalism. Pisaturo argues that the U.S. government must take back the oil fields for Western oil companies, appropriate Arab assets worldwide (including "real estate, bank accounts, and all other financial holdings"), and "isolate, colonize, and settle the lands the savages now roam." Sensing perhaps that such a proposal for massive colonization of the region might entail an exponential increase in U.S. tax rates and in the size of the U.S. militaryperhaps even necessitating conscriptionPisaturo declares that if the Western oil companies "agree to pay the cost of waging this war," then the U.S. government could continue "occupying and defending these oil-rich territories." Once the U.S. has seized the Middle EastI suppose after several years of waiting for the nuclear fallout to settleit will allow American pioneers to enter the region as international homesteaders. "Over time, pioneers, with the paid support of our military, can go into these isolated territories, subdue the remaining savages, install a civilized, colonial government protecting the rights of both the pioneers and the savages, and settle the landas American pioneers subdued the savage, murderous American Indian tribes and settled America." Of course, the "savages" will eventually realize that they will be the "most fortunate beneficiaries" of such colonialism.
In truth, Pisaturo's view of the Arab world finds inspiration in Rand's own condemnation of Arab terrorists as "savages" (on "The Phil Donahue Show"). She saw the "Arab whose teeth are green with decay in his mouth" ("The Left: Old and New") as living "a nomadic, anti-industrial form of existence" ("Requiem for Man"). But this is a far cry from Pisaturo's genocidal call for an American Lebensraum.
I submit that this "cure" is far worse than the disease.
Let's analyze Pisaturo's proposal more closely. The Western oil companies whose interests Pisaturo wishes to defend are the same Western oil companies that collaborated with the U.S. government and Middle Eastern governments to develop the oil fields. The U.S. government socialized much of their risk, and replaced the colonizing British as the chief power in the region. From the 1920s through World War II and beyond, the government and the oil industry worked hand-in-hand to win concessions from, and bolster the power of, various "pro-Western" Arab regimes, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan, trying to create stability with money, munitions, and political machinations (see Sheldon Richman's "'Ancient History': U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War II and the Folly of Intervention"; ed: also see my discussion here). The "pull-peddling" between the oil industry and the various governments was a quintessential expression of the New Fascism. (Rand did not examine these oil industry-government ties; but she did believe, ironically, that U.S. foreign policy had "brought the entire Western world to the position of a colony ruled by Arab sheiks" ["The Energy Crisis, Part II"]).
When a neoconservative defends the ideal of a new U.S. colonialism, I am disgustedbut not surprised. Neoconservatism was foundedas a movementby a group of disaffected socialists and "social democrats." Its modern representatives are now the intellectual architects of U.S. foreign policy. Having given up the fiasco of defending economic central planning, they now embrace global social engineering to bring the ideal of "democracy" to the rest of the world. And if some of them get their wishof establishing a new "American Empire"they'll find out that the pretense of knowledge, which destroyed socialism, will similarly destroy their Wilsonian designs. We simply never know enough to construct or reconstruct, wholesale, social systems and nations from the ground up. (On this point, see especially Hayek's Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol. 3, pp. 107109.) Such schemes for a Pax Americana are fraught with endless possibilities for negative unintended consequences, however "noble" the intentions.
So "nation-building" as a neoconservative goal is understandablegiven the socialist lineage of its champions. But when an Objectivist advocates mass murder and U.S. colonialism and supports the oil industry's employment of the government like a mercenary private protection agency to secure its foreign financial and material holdings, it is beyond baffling. These are the same kinds of Objectivists who would accuse the U.S. Libertarian Party of "context-dropping" (in contradistinction to "atomic-bomb-dropping") for wanting to build political solutions on a fragile philosophic and cultural foundation. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Comments welcome.

December 21, 2005

Eu-Damon-ia

The whole freaking world is falling apart, I know. The Iraqi elections have emboldened a religious element with ties to Iran. Iran has a President who spouts anti-Semitic garbage, boasts about nuclear ambitions, and bans Western music. The Transit Worker's Union has staged a damn strike as buses and subways ground to a halt in New York City. I'm having to get up at 4 a.m. just to help my sister get off to work. At least the courts struck down that Intelligent Design nonsense in Pennsylvania.

But if you were expecting predictable commentary about all the above, fuhgedaboudit.

All that matters to me this morning is that the New York Yankees have Followed Their Damon.

He's not the best fielding center fielder, but he is Johnny Damon, and this signing of the now-former Boston Red Sox leadoff hitter must surely be creating havoc in Beantown, among those who see the Yanks as the Evil Empire.

Poor Johnny is going to have to go for a haircut and trim his beard; for Yankee fans, however, let's just hope this trimming doesn't trim his stats, Samson-like.

Comments welcome.

December 05, 2005

The Freeman: Dialectics and Liberty

The September 2005 issue of The Freeman includes my essay, "Dialectics and Liberty," which offers an introduction to dialectical method and its role in the works of such writers as F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand. That essay finally makes its cyber-debut today! Another in a series of essays and interviews on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the publication of my books Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, the article is available as a PDF here:

"Dialectics and Liberty"

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to L&P, with comments here. Also noted at Rational Review.

December 04, 2005

Antiwar Masters of Horror

I've long been a fan of so-called "horror" films, in addition to sci-fi and fantasy.

Unfortunately, the Showtime series "Masters of Horror," thus far, has been a bit of a disappointment to me; it's a mix of schlock and gore, with just a few thrills thrown in for good measure. I prefer horror to have a purpose, maybe a bit of "Twilight Zone"-like morality play at work. At the very least, it should be suspenseful, rather than predictable.

I did enjoy Friday night's episode, "Homecoming," directed by Joe Dante, which made a few biting political points. For me, the funniest right-wing caricature was played by Thea Gill, who was a "skank"-like right-wing pundit, curiously comparable to Ann Coulter. It was quite a change for Gill, who portrayed the mild-mannered Lindsay in "Queer as Folk."

The Dante-directed "Homecoming" gives us a zombie tale, in which fallen soldiers come back from the dead to right the wrongs of a Presidential administration that involved them in a no-win war. No spoilers here; if you haven't caught the episode, check it out.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to L&P.

November 18, 2005

The Illusion of the Epoch

President Bush and his VP have been railing against the "Democrats" for "rewriting" the history of the 2002-2003 march toward war. (Some good commentary on this can be found here, here, and here.)

In the meanwhile, the critics keep a comin' and most of them, indeed, were former champions of the war. Vietnam combat vet, and current Democratic Congressman John P. Murtha, who supported the war, now calls it "a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion..."

The flaws have been legion. And the illusion? Well, H. B. Acton once spoke of communism as "the illusion of the epoch." For me, the biggest illusion of this epoch is a neoconservative one: that it is possible to construct a liberal democracy on any cultural base whatsoever. Now, I'm not looking to re-open the tired debate over whether it was right or wrong to go to war in Iraq; but even the politicians realize that the time has come for a debate about the future of that war.

But that won't stop the administration from its tarring of critics, like Murtha, as a "Michael Moore ... liberal" because he is questioning the wisdom of the war. Except the charges won't stick this time, because even though the President doesn't read polls, apparently, the politicians in his own party are reading the handwriting on the walls of the Pew Research Center and the Gallop organization. The American people are becoming increasingly pissed off over this war and its conduct. And if current trends continue, the party in power, gerrymandering notwithstanding, is going to suffer in the 2006 midterm elections.

I'm tickled, of course, that the administration puts such a priority on "consistency" in its defense of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. As the ineffectual John Kerry said, effectively, during one of the 2004 Presidential debates: Consistency is great... but "you could be wrong!" Cheney is so busy reminding opponents of the war about how they've changed their positions that he doesn't even recognize how far he's come over the last decade or so.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to L&P.

November 03, 2005

Iran, Again

After last week's pronouncements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be "wiped off the map," there's been a lot of saber rattling about Iran. (I've written on the subject of Iran a number of times over the past few years; see here, here, and here, for example).

There is nothing shocking or unexpected about Ahmadinejad's rhetoric. The Iranian theocrats have been talking like that for years. Their overthrow of the US-backed Shah was a clarion call for fundamentalists across the Islamic world to mobilize against both Israel and the United States. Many others in the Islamic world have uttered the same view, including those who reside in countries that are, ostensibly, current US allies.

The fact is, of course, that US actions in Iraq have emboldened the Iranian regime significantly; some are even suggesting that the US was the "useful idiot" for Iranian foreign policy goals to undermine a hostile Baathist regime in Iraq, substituting a friendlier Shiite majoritarian theocracy in its place. With the antagonistic Taliban held at bay in Afghanistan on its eastern flank, and Hussein gone on the western side, Iran has emerged as a central geopolitical power in the Middle Eastand was made so in significant part as the direct result of actions taken by the United States, purportedly in our own defense.

But it is a state that is in a deepening cultural crisis, a crisis that will have profound political ramifications over time.

Today, I've read an interesting NY Times essay about "Our Allies in Iran." It's the kind of title that is meant to surprise. The writer, Afshin Molavi, makes some very important points. Molavi states:

The new president's confrontational tone threatens to deepen the isolation of Iran's democrats, pushing them further behind his long shadow. Western powers have a dual challenge: to find a way to engage this population even as they struggle to address the new president's inflammatory rhetoric. By the time Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected in June, a sustained assault by hard-liners had left Iranian democrats disoriented and leaderless, their dissidents jailed, newspapers closed and reformist political figures popularly discredited. But democratic aspirations should not be written off as a passing fad that died with the failure of the reform movement and the replacement of a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, with a hard-liner, Mr. Ahmadinejad. The historic roots of reform run deep in Iran, and support for democratic change remains widespread.

Iran's modern middle class, which is increasingly urbanized, wired and globally connected, provides particularly fertile soil for these aspirations. The Stanford University scholar Abbas Milani has described Iran's middle class as a "Trojan horse within the Islamic republic, supporting liberal values, democratic tolerance and civic responsibility." And so long as that class grows, so too will the pressure for democratic change.

Molavi warns, however, that war against Iran could have an adverse effect on that country's "democracy-minded middle class," providing "additional pretexts for the regime to frighten its people and crack down on dissent." Anything that undermines Iranian contact "with the foreign investors, educators, tourists and businessmen who link them to the outside world," says Molavi, undermines the movement toward political and cultural reform. That movement requires a strong private sector and a growing civil society in Iran, which can be encouraged by an extension of the global market. Such an extension would nourish "a strong and stable middle class" and the "inevitable winds of change" so crucial to peace and prosperity in the region.

It is ironic that those who speak glowingly about the need for "democratization" in Iraq as a key to Mideast peace are the same people who now speak about the need for military action in Iran, which would most assuredly sabotage the trends toward democratization in that country.

The saber-rattlers tell us that they are worried about the long-run problem of a "nuclear" Iran. Fair enough. But they don't seem to worry about the long-run consequences of military intervention in Iran, given the current context in Iraq, a context that the saber-rattlers themselves did much to create. As Arthur Silber writes here:

We now have a voluminous record, in news accounts, in government documents and in other forms, to prove beyond any doubt that the Bush administration gave almost no attention to the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. No one had any serious question about our taking down the Saddam Hussein regime, except about how long it might take and the details. Despite that certainty, we know that the Bush administration did not listen to many of its own experts and planners about what should be done once Saddam was gone. To put the point simply, the Bush administration never seriously addressed the multitude of inordinately complex issues encompassed in the question: What then?

This much is true, and this much we can agree with, as Arthur puts it: "Iran is run by viciously destructive and dangerous leaders." But as people clamor for military action against Iran, they are not asking and answering the crucial question: "What then?"

I often wonder, for example, how the Shiites in Iraq, with whom the US has cast its political lot, would deal with a US military strike against Iran. How long would it take for a strike against Iran to destabilize the situation with the US's Shiite-Iraqi allies? The Sunni insurgency against the Shiites in Iraq has been awful; I can't even begin to think of the conditions that might arise should a Shiite insurgency unfold against the USa Shiite insurgency aided and abetted by its own ideological brethren in Tehran.

And what then? In addition to the internal combustion of Iraq, might there not be counterattacks from other Arab governments? Might not the Mideast be thrown into further chaos? And what if additional US troops are needed to "finish the job" started by planes and missiles? Where are these troops coming from? How long before military conscription is reinstituted?

As Richard Cohen tells us today in the New York Daily News, in the Middle East, "bad could get worse."

The central problem in the Middle East is not strategic. The central problem is not the spread of nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The central problem is the spread of ideological and cultural weapons of mass destruction. And these weapons have been manufactured at a maddening pace for generations by countries like Saudi Arabia, a US "ally." As Jason Pappas reminds us (see here and here), the Saudis have been funding the worldwide proliferation of the very jihadist ideology that targets Western values and institutions.

But the odds are very slim that there will be any fundamental change in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. That's because the House of Sa'ud remains a key player in US global political economy (see here). The dismantling of that neocorporatist politico-economic system is not likely to happen anytime soon.

And yet, despite its role in the proliferation of jihadist fanaticism, the collapse of the House of Sa'ud at this point could be catastrophic: it would most likely lead to the transference of power into the hands of the very worst jihadists, those who have been a by-product of Saudi education.

Yes, it's one gigantic mess of internal contradictions at work. But, currently, I have no reason to believe that a military attack upon Iran would resolve these contradictions, without engendering a host of newer and far more lethal ones.

Update: I see my pal Matthew Humphreys has drawn parallels between our views. Check out his post here, which preceded mine.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to L&P, and take a look at L&P comments here.

September 16, 2005

Bush, Krugman, and the Old Deal

Today's NY Times article by Paul Krugman, "Not the New Deal," gave me a few chuckles.

With George W. Bush projecting a huge federal government effort to reconstruct Louisiana and Mississippi and other areas affected by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, fiscal conservatives are already murmuring. But little stands in the way of this vast projected increase in government spending.

As my colleague Mark Brady has asked: "Did You Really Expect Anything Else?"

A Bush critic such as Paul Krugman is busy objecting to a Heritage Foundation-inspired plan that would include "waivers on environmental rules, the elimination of capital gains taxes and the private ownership of public school buildings in the disaster areas." But he also believes that "even conservatives" must recognize that "recovery will require a lot of federal spending." Since this will have an appreciable effect on the deficit, Krugman wonders "how ... discretionary government spending [can] take place on that scale without creating equally large-scale corruption." Given the Bush administration's penchant for awarding so much pork to favored corporations in places like Iraq, Krugman is understandably concerned about "cronyism and corruption."

This, says Krugman, is in marked contrast to the efforts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose "New Deal" provided "a huge expansion of federal spending" without corruption or cronyism. The New Deal, says Krugman, "made almost a fetish out of policing its own programs against potential corruption. In particular, F.D.R. created a powerful 'division of progress investigation' to look into complaints of malfeasance in the W.P.A. That division proved so effective that a later Congressional investigation couldn't find a single serious irregularity it had missed." For Krugman, FDR was committed to "honest government," because he understood that "government activism works. But George W. Bush isn't F.D.R. Indeed, in crucial respects he's the anti-F.D.R."

Is Krugman kidding me?

Throughout his presidency, Bush has looked to such American Presidents as Woodrow Wilson and FDR for inspiration. Bush believes that FDR himself "gave his soul for the process" of taking America out of the Depression and into a world war against authoritarianism.

As for the New Deal: There are no "honest government" spending programs that don't involve some kind of structurally constituted cronyism and corruption. That's just the nature of the beast. And FDR's New Deal is no exception. It was, in many ways, a paradigmatic case, no different from the "war collectivism" policies of World War I or World War II, all of which entailed using the vastly expanding power of government to privilege certain groups at the expense of other groups. Not even Herbert Hoover's response to the government-engendered Great Depression was "laissez faire" (see Rothbard's "Herbert Hoover and the Myth of Laissez-Faire" in A New History of Leviathan, and, of course, his fine book on the subject).

A cursory look at Jim Powell's recent book, FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression reveals "why so much New Deal relief and public works money [was] channeled away from the poorest people." From its inception, the New Deal was inspired by the corporatist model of Italian fascism. Even Krugman's beloved Works Progress Adminstration was constructed on the basis of patronage schemes. Citing economic historian Gavin Wright, Powell tells us that "a statistical analysis of New Deal spending purportedly aimed at helping the poor" gives us evidence that "80 percent of the state-by-state variation in per person New Deal spending could be explained by political factors."

Mainstream politics offers no genuine opposition to FDR's Old "New Deal" or Bush's New "Old Deal," not when "conservatives" and "liberals" are united in their support for massive government intervention.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to L&P and Mises Economics Blog.

August 26, 2005

The Rose Petal Assumption

Back in July, when volatile discussions of James S. Valliant's book The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics were proceeding on a number of forums, Dennis C. Hardin at SOLO HQ made the following point, after a long, rather critical, dialogue in response to my own engagement at Notablog with Valliant:

Nathaniel Branden said the following a while back:
About ten years ago, I came across a saying from the Talmud that impressed me profoundly. I have not been able to stop thinking about it. ... The line that so impressed me was: "A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy." ...
I will acknowledge that Chris has shown the true meaning of heroism in the sense described.

Well, given my long history of engagement with adversaries on all ends of the political and intellectual spectrum, I have always responded positively to that Branden-uttered line. But there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding that phrase and its various applications. Dennis himself has brought up the issue again in a recent SOLO HQ essay entitled "Nathaniel Branden vs. Ayn Rand on Morality," which has sparked another volatile discussion. As Dennis makes clear: "Branden made this comment in the context of discussing David Kelleys decision to address a libertarian group ... It is clear that Branden was using this quote to express his admiration for Kelleys decision, because Kelley saw that 'libertarians often supported their position with aspects of [Ayn Rands] philosophy, without necessarily subscribing to the total of Objectivism.'"

It's not my desire to re-open that tired, old thread over the appropriateness of speaking before libertarian groups; it depends on the group, of course, but I'd be the last one to object in principle, since I consider myself a (small-l) libertarian, and I have always believed that Rand herself was, in the sphere of politics, a (small-l) libertarianfor the same reason she was an "egoist" in ethics, despite sharing that label with Nietzsche and Stirner, for example, to whom she was profoundly opposed. (I have discussed these issues many times; see here, which, for nonmembers of the Branden Yahoo group, is referenced here; also see here.)

What I'd like to focus on, however, is that Talmudic expression. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Talmudic scholar or rabbi, though I've read the Bible from cover-to-cover. I do like what Adam Reed says here:

I looked up "A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy" in the Talmud. I would have translated it as "A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an opponent," because it is in the context of "makhlokhet l'shem shamaim," which in the context of the quote means "conflict between good and good." I suppose that Ayn Rand may have known of it, because in the social context that is what her heroes wind up doing. Kira turns opponent Andrei to her side, eventually. Roark turns "enemies" Dominique, and in a sense Wynand, to his. Francisco turns Rearden, and Galt turns Dagny.

Whatever the precise translation of the statement, it has had some personal significance for me. I cite it in a recent interview conducted by Sunni Maravillosa at Sunni's Salon. On this page and this page of the interview, I state the following:

I guess I've always operated also on what I call the "rose petal assumption." A friend of mine once observed that I was the kind of person who would find the one rose petal in a pile of manure. Instead of calling the whole thing crap, I'm busying myself searching for that rose petal, and sometimes getting pretty dirty in the process. But, the truth is, I do try to look for the good in people, even in my critics; I try to appeal to the best in everybody. Perhaps I would like to embody that Talmudic expression that Nathaniel Branden has often highlighted in his work: "A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy."
This strategy, however, which is built into my very soul, as it were, does not always work. Some people are just constitutionally nasty and mean-spirited and it doesn't matter how many nonviolent responses one authors. It never makes a dent. I usually give such people three strikes. I mean, it is possible that in the rough and tumble of give-and-take on any particular discussion forum that a person might occasionally lose their temper in an exchange, perhaps once or twice. But beyond that, I've learned not to be somebody's punching bag. I've gotten better at drawing and re-drawing that "line between valid criticism and a crank's ranting," as you put it. Most of all, I've learned to stop tolerating rudeness. I am willing to engage anybody on any issue, but the moment my interlocutor treats me with ridicule or rudeness or disrespect, I stop the discussion and refuse to enable or sanction such behavior. I have also noticed that when people engage in rude and disrespectful exchanges, the topic of the discussion soon shifts from a debate over substance to a debate over style.
I know that in the cyber-universe and in the blogosphere, in particular, it's not just pro-freedom individuals who are loose canons in this regard. I've seen that same level of negativity, anger, fear, and hatred on display on left-wing forums as well. As for those in our own ideological home being unable to deal with criticism in a constructive way, I can only say that there is only one way to create a civil discussion: acting with civility. There is simply no substitute for actually practicing the very virtues one claims to celebrate. ...

I then draw a distinction between Rand's practice and my own:

Rand ... often speeds to the bottom line of a judgment on, say, a particular philosopher, which seems to sweep away any and all complexities in that thinker's corpus. So, while I'm more apt to look for the rose petal, Rand is busy taking the hose to the manure. And that function is needed. But it's not easy to reach people working in other traditions if one always approaches them with the hose. Or the sledgehammer.

Now, let's just explore these themes a bit more.

The phrase"A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy" or an "opponent"has particular application to the context of civil and voluntary discourse and social relations. It has no applicability once the line has been crossed into incivility and coercion, especially coercion. Branden himself makes the point in a recent interview with Alec Mouhibian in The Free Radical. When the person you are engaging is quite clearly a "mad animal," such as a terrorist suicide bomber, the very last thing you should be doing is trying to turn that person into a "friend." As Branden puts it: "Theres nothing you can do except shoot him. ... [I]n action, one kills them, rather than getting killed by them."

As one who has spent some time trying to situate the whole post-9/11 world in a wider context that takes account of the evolution and structure of U.S. foreign policy, I have frequently made a very clear distinction between "explanation" and "justification." One can look to the past history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East as one factor in the modern development of fanatical Islamic fundamentalism; but an explanation of its development, or even of its goals, is not the same as a moral justification for the actions of those particular Islamic terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 civilians on September 11, 2001.

There is only one appropriate response to those who have destroyed life, liberty, and property: Justice. And justice demands that one act in self-defense against those who violate individual rights.

Quite clearly, then, the Talmudic expression applies to genuinely human social relations. It is not a pact of appeasement between those who live according to human standards and those who adopt the barbarism of the jungle.

The Rose Petal Assumption has allowed me to reach out to my critics and my intellectual adversaries in a spirit of rational, civil engagement. It is not a license or a sanction for rudeness or ridicule. It is not a license or a sanction for the violation of individual rights. Those who are rude are not entitled to civility; in my view, they're not even entitled to a reply, except perhaps "But I don't think of you." And those who violate rights are not entitled to the sanction of those whose rights have been violated.

Comments welcome.

August 18, 2005

My Interview at Sunni's Salon

The tenth anniversary celebrations continue this afternoon with the publication of my interview at Sunni's Salon. I have known Sunni Maravillosa for a long time, and she's a total sweetheart. Her interview of me is comprehensive, wide-ranging, sometimes intimate, and always entertaining.

The 8-page interview starts here.

Comments welcome.

Ten Years After, Take 2

On this date, ten years ago, my book Marx, Hayek, and Utopia was published by the State University of New York Press. The book is near and dear to my heart because it was the very first book I ever wrote, a derivative of my doctoral dissertation that became the first installment of my "Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy." As I stated in my "Ten Years After" article:

Marx, Hayek, and Utopia was first accepted for publication in 1989 by a West German publishing house, Philosophia Verlag, which eventually went bankrupt. I took back the rights to the book and eventually secured a contract with the State University of New York Press, which published it as part of its series on the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. By the time it appeared in the same August 1995 week as my second book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Germany had become a united country.

Reminiscing about all this, ten years after, I have posted several times this past week at SOLO HQ. (Readers can follow that discussion here, here, and here.)

Today, in fact, at SOLO HQ, Edward W. Younkins publishes a version of an earlier review he did of my book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. He mentions in his review that while I offer an interpretive, methodological, and historical discussion, I don't offer my own substantive "dialectical-libertarian" social theory. Here, I make two brief points in response:

1. It is true that I didn't develop a formal "Sciabarraian" dialectical social theory in my trilogy, but there is an implicit parallel of sorts, between my own work and the work of somebody like Isaiah Berlin. Now, I'm not comparing myself to Berlin (some love him, some hate him) or to Berlin's history of voluminous writing. Moreover, I disagree with a lot of what Berlin has written.
But something of Berlin's "approach" was imparted to me through my Marxist mentor Bertell Ollman, who was himself taught by Berlin. One of the things I learned was that if I wanted to do intellectual history, I could express my own substantive views through my interpretation of the views of others. While my trilogy does not offer a substantive social theory, it is interpretive, methodological, and historical, and one can glean where I stand by the enthusiasm that I bring to my reconstruction of [, for example,] Rand's "tri-level model" (in Part Three of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical) and of Rothbard's "structural" critique (discussed in Chapter 7 of Total Freedom).
2. I think of my own essays on domestic and foreign policy as applications of the tri-level Randian model that I discuss in Russian Radical, and that I endorse, while being fully cognizant of important insights from other theorists as well (including Menger, Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard). Some day, when I finish a whole host of planned articles, I hope to return to the enunciation of a more formal "Sciabarraian" social theory. But before I can do that, I need to work on a much more accessible exposition of dialectical method. Though I defend my own ability to speak "Polish," as Linz has put it (that is, to situate myself in some very technical contemporary debates on methodology), I also believe that the time is ripe for extended essays on "The Art of Context-Keeping"essays that not only present "Dialectics for Dummies" (so-to-speak), but that integrate and illustrate the concrete practice of the art.

Here, I have more to say not only about this issue of speaking "Polish," that is, of speaking a technical language in books that are aimed at a technical audience (at least partially), but also about the larger issue of civility in public discourse:

I, personally, have engaged in what I view as very strong criticisms of other's works. Take a look at my critique of James Valliant's book, for example. I'm not going to re-open the substance of that debate on this thread. But if I'd called Valliant a "maggot" because I disagreed with him, what would it have achieved? We would have spent hours upon hours upon hours debating the style of my essay, rather than its substance.
An interview conducted by Sunni Maravillosa goes up later today where I expand on these themes. I'll post the link later. But as I say there, "when people engage in rude and disrespectful exchanges, the topic of the discussion soon shifts from a debate over substance to a debate over style."
Now, I'll admit that Linz has a nice Goldwater-tinged maxim in his essay from yesterday:
"Civility in the face of evil is no virtue; rage in the face of nihilism is no vice.
People who have seen me post to SOLO HQ have surely seen that I get passionate about many issues. Take a look at former discussions here of everything from homosexuality to foreign policy. But there comes a point where I move on. Just because I have serious disagreements with somebody does not mean that I have to revel in that topic for eons, spewing the newest, freshest insults I could come up with. That's just not me. It's not even a difference between a "public Chris" and "private Chris." It's not that I think one thing privately and say another publicly. I am usually unwilling to throw epithets around on SOLO HQ because I don't see the point of making the style of my exposition the center of the debate, thereby detracting from the substance of my points. It's as much a tactical decision as it is an expression of who I am.

Readers who doubt that should simply read Notablog more regularly; the discussions here that have been most contentious never go "off the rails." I expect my readers and posters to adhere to a certain tone in my home, and I lead by example.

More from my SOLO HQ post:

But few people ever walk away from a dialogue with me wondering about that substance. People know where I stand on a subject, whether it be the Iraq war, dialectics, feminism, homosexuality, or countless other topics.
None of this means that I'm not entertained by other people's diametrically opposed styles. Vive la difference! I have been entertained, plenty of times, by people (like Jeff), who can use satire and parody in devastating ways. And I may not like it when Linz throws certain epithets in my direction, but he can sometimes be very effective in the style that comes naturally to him.
And let me state this for the hearing of the world: I have actually learned from Lindsay Perigo. Horrors! There is a distinctive difference between the style of my academic work, which enters into very technical scholarly debates over methodology and epistemology, since it is addressed to a very specific audience, and the style of my essays for The Free Radical, which is more accessible. Linz has helped me to tap into my Inner Pit Bull on many an occasion, in his editorial comments on my first or second drafts for TFR, pushing me toward far more colorful and effective communication in that context. But I stand by my ability to speak "Polish" (as Linz puts it) to the Poles because I believe that different contexts demand different approaches. They do not demand a compromise of the substance of my points. But they do demand that I take into account the interests, needs, and knowledge of the audience I'm addressing.
On these last points, see my essay: "Dialectics and the Art of Nonfiction."

I'll post the link to my exchange with Sunni Maravillosa later today.

Comments welcome. Also mentioned at L&P.

August 17, 2005

An Interview, Conducted by Sebastien Care

This is a Notablog Exclusive.

In keeping with my tenth anniversary activities, I am interviewed today by Sebastien Care French researcher and Ph.D. in Politics, on the subject of libertarianism. Here's the link:

An Interview, Conducted by Sebastien Care

Comments welcome.

July 08, 2005

"Home" is Now London

Regular readers of Notablog know where I stand on many foreign policy questions, and debating those issues here is not my intention.

Suffice it to say, we have been told by the leaders of the "coalition of the willing" that "we" have to "take the war to the terrorists" and fight "over there" so that "we" don't have to face death and destruction "over here." Or as President Bush put it: "Either we take the war to the terrorists and fight them where they are ... or at some point we will have to fight them here at home."

Well, "home" is now London.

And fighting terrorists "where they are" does nothing to stem the tide of their ever-increasing numbers.

This is not an argument, pro or con, for military action in places like Afghanistan or in Iraq. I favored military action in the former case, but opposed it in the latter instance. I have argued that Afghanistan was a hotbed of Al Qaeda activity, and nothing less than the annihilation of that terror group would do in a post-9/11 era. Long-run, however, I have argued that the US needs to change fundamentally its foreign policy.

Putting all these questions aside, my heart goes out to my friends in the UK during this period. To say I empathize is an understatement. Mourn the dead, but keep your crying eyes open. Better to see what lies ahead.

It is very easy to give into fear. "Fear is the antonym of thought." I tell myself: Don't let the politicians manipulate your fear and take away your life and liberty in an effort to "preserve" them. But don't bury your head in the sand either, thinking that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are going to "give up" anytime soon.

I can tell my readers that since September 2001, I have had at least one fear. That someday, probably in late fall or winter, people, full of rage, will wrap themselves up in explosives, hidden carefully beneath layers of clothing typical for the season. And they will enter the subway system, by boarding subway cars in the outer boroughs of New York City, perhaps in Queens, or the Bronx, or my beloved Brooklyn. And they'll sit quietly in the subway car, among unsuspecting people on their way to work, until the train is pulling into a major Manhattan destination, like Times Square, or Penn Station, or Grand Central, or, perhaps, while going over an East River Bridge or through an East River tunnel crossing. And they'll just detonate themselves.

Thousands, tens of thousands of lives, could be snuffed out in a coordinated attack of this nature on the sprawling NYC subway system. And infrastructure could be devastated for months at considerable cost to the economy. Terrorists don't need nuclear material; they don't need biological or chemical weapons. They don't need planes. They need only the will.

Seeing Londoners brave an attack of this nature feels too much like a premonition of things to come. The expressions on the faces of New Yorkers tell me that the fear is real. And if terror revisits US shores, New Yorkers know that they are wearing a bull's eye on their backs.

Short-run, the protection of citizens' lives and liberties should be the most important priority. And, in fact, the protection of life and liberty is the only legitimate role to be played by any governing body. And this requires skilled intelligence, human intelligence. But no security system is 100% effective. And the creation of a police state through the manipulation of citizens' fears is not a solution either, since that merely replaces one form of terrorism for another.

That's why, in the long-run, a fundamental change in direction, in policy, will be necessary.

For now, my deepest, heartfelt condolences to those who have lost loved ones. My good wishes to those who are dealing with injury to body and spirit.

Comments welcome. Mentioned at L&P here and Technomaget's Journal

July 03, 2005

"If We Don't Change the World...

... the world's gonna change us."

That's what Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said today on "Meet the Press."

And in that simple phrase, Hunter has summarized one of the crucial constructivist principles at the foundation of the Bush administration's stated neo-Wilsonian initiative in the Middle East.

Cross-posted at L&P, where discussion can be found here.

Comments welcome. Noted by Jonathan Rick here.

June 30, 2005

Iranian Death Throes?

Having seen various recent blog posts on Islam and secularization (including this one by Jason Pappas), I found this morning's NY Times essay by Abbas Milani of the Hoover Institution an interesting read. In "The Silver Lining in Iran," Milani argues, in essence, that the tightening of reactionary forces in Iranian politics is actually a sign that the reigning mullahs are in their death throes. For Milani, the ruling "cabal of conservative mullahs and Revolutionary Guards who have absconded to ivory towers with their dogma and greed for power" have ignored "serious signs of crisis [as] they masterminded Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory." This is the same President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that is being fingered by former US hostages of the 1979 embassy crisis as one of their captors.

Milani continues:

Nevertheless, contrary to the common perception, this election is not so much a sign of the Iranian system's strength as of its weakness. Last week's presidential election is only the most recent example of the tactical wisdom and strategic foolishness of Iran's ruling mullahs. ... In the process they may have unwittingly opened the door for democracy - because their hardball tactics have created the most serious rift in the ranks of ruling mullahs since the inception of the Islamic Republic. The experience of emerging democracies elsewhere has shown that dissension within ruling circles has often presaged the fall of authoritarianism.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's presidency will force a crisis not only in Iran's political establishment but also, and even more important, in its economy. Only a huge infusion of capital and expertise, along with open markets, can even begin to address the country's economic problems, which include high unemployment, a rapidly increasing labor force, cronyism and endemic corruption.

And only an "infusion" of "security and the rule of law" will help, says Milani. But the president-elect is too busy opining "that the stock market is a form of gambling with no place in a genuine Islamic society. Not surprisingly, Mr. Ahmadinejad's election brought about the single greatest plunge in the Iranian stock market's history. The day is already known as Black Saturday, and the president-elect has been scrambling to undo the damage since." As the ruling clique turns to "the old populist slogans of revolutionary justice, economic autarky and pseudosocialism, ... they have helped bring Iran one step closer to democracy."

When certain groups are threatened, it is only natural that they will fight that much harder to retain or expand their influence. I think an argument can be made that this is indeed the case in Iran, but the regime still has a lot of mileage left in its gas tank and can do a lot of damage to the growth of opposition forces.

I know that it's comparing apples and oranges to some extent, but I wish I could be as optimistic on the home-front, especially with regard to the US's own home-grown reactionaries among the religious right. One would like to think that in their successful attempts to bolster their own political power, their influence too is waning.

In any event, it will be very interesting to see how the anti-mullah, more "democratic" movement among Iranian youth (noted here in a number of posts) will proceed.

Cross-posted to L&P.

Comments welcome.

June 10, 2005

Wilson Lives

I am way behind in my reading but finally had the opportunity to read Barry Gewen's interesting review essay from the NY Times Book Review (5 June 2005), "Forget the Founding Fathers." Gewen's focus is on "the constantly change narrative of American history" and the move toward "a globalized history of the United States." He discusses, among other books, Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which I have not read. Though I don't agree with Gewen on many points, his comments on how "American idealism can go wrong" are worth repeating:

MacMillan's focus is on Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I. A visionary, an evangelist, an inspiration, an earth-shaker, a holy fool, Wilson went to Paris in 1919 with grand ambitions: to hammer out a peace settlement and confront a wretched world with virtue, to reconfigure international relations and reform mankind itself. Freedom and democracy were ''American principles,'' he proclaimed. ''And they are also the principles and policies of forward-looking men and women everywhere, of every modern nation, of every enlightened community. They are the principles of mankind and they must prevail.'' Other leaders were less sure. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, liked Wilson's sincerity and straightforwardness, but also found him obstinate and vain. France's prime minister, the acerbic and unsentimental Georges Clemenceau, said that talking to him was ''something like talking to Jesus Christ.'' (He didn't mean that as a compliment.)

As a committed American democrat, Wilson affirmed his belief in the principle of self-determination for all peoples, but in Paris his convictions collided with reality. Eastern Europe was ''an ethnic jumble,'' the Middle East a ''myriad of tribes,'' with peoples and animosities so intermingled they could never be untangled into coherent polities. In the Balkans, leaders were all for self-determination, except when it applied to others. The conflicting parties couldn't even agree on basic facts, making neutral mediation impossible. Ultimately, the unbending Wilson compromisedon Germany, China, Africa and the South Pacific. He yielded to the force majeure of Turks and Italians. In the end, he left behind him a volcano of dashed expectations and festering resentments. MacMillan's book is a detailed and painful record of his failure, and of how we continue to live with his troublesome legacy in the Balkans, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Yet the idealistsnationalists and internationalists alikedo not lack for responses. Wilsonianism, they might point out, has not been discredited. It always arises from its own ashes; it has even become the guiding philosophy of the present administration. Give George W. Bush key passages from Wilson's speeches to read, and few would recognize that almost a century had passed. Nor should this surprise us. For while the skeptics can provide realism, they can't provide hope. As MacMillan says, the Treaty of Versailles, particularly the League of Nations, was ''a bet placed on the future.'' Who, looking back over the rubble, would have wanted to bet on the past?

Little has changed in our new century. Without the dreams of the idealists, all that is on offer is more of the samemore hatred, more bloodshed, more war, and eventually, now, nuclear war. Anti-Wilsonian skeptics tend to be pessimistic about the wisdom of embarking on moral crusades but, paradoxically, it is the idealists, the hopeful ones, who, in fact, should be painting in Stygian black. They are the ones who should be reminding us that for most of the world, history is not the benign story of inexorable progress Americans like to believe in. Rather, it's a record of unjustified suffering, irreparable loss, tragedy without catharsis. It's a gorgon: stare at it too long and it turns you to stone.

Take a look at the whole review essay here.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted at L&P, where comments are here and here.

Grinder and Hagel at L&P

I was delighted to see a contribution today from Walter Grinder and John Hagel, whom I welcomed to L&P last August. Grinder and Hagel, whose works have influenced my own understanding of political economy, discuss a book entitled Liberty for Latin America. Read the post here; I left a brief comment.

Comments welcome, but readers are encouraged to read and comment on the Grinder-Hagel entry, "South of the Border."

May 29, 2005

A Mothers' War

Of all the tributes that I've read this Memorial Day Weekend, this one, entitled "A Mothers' War," by Cynthia Gorney, had particularly poignant passages. The story centers on Tracy Della Vecchia, who runs a website for mothers nationwide whose children are fighting, and being injured, and dying, in Iraq. Tracy's son,

Derrick Jensen, has spent three birthdays in a row deployed in Iraq. There are about 140,000 American troops stationed in Iraq; 23,000 of them are marines. As this article appears, Corporal Jensen should be somewhere near Falluja. He is an infantry radio operator, which sounded to Tracy like a good, safe job until she found out that radio operators carry big antennas, which make them easier targets. She let me stay at her house for a while this winter partly because I am a reporter and happen to have a 22-year-old son who is not in the military. Tracy thought people like me might want to know something about what it's like to live all the time with that kind of information about your child, to go to sleep knowing it and wake up knowing it and drive around town knowing it, which makes it possible to be standing in the Wal-Mart dog-food aisle on an ordinary afternoon and without reason or warning be knocked breathless again by the sudden imagining of sniper fire or an explosion beneath a Humvee. Still. Derrick has been shipped home twice since President Bush delivered his May 2003 speech in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and shipped back twice. He has had one occasion of near death that Tracy knows about in some detail; there are others, she assumes, that Derrick has so far kept to himself. "During the first deployment," Tracy said to me once as we were sitting in her car, a lipstick-red PT Cruiser with a yellow "Keep My Son Safe" ribbon magnet on the back, "the only emotion I could imagine him having was fear." ...

Tracy's closest friends in the world right now are other parents whose sons and daughters have served in Iraq or are serving there now. Some of these parents think the war is righteous, some think it was wrongheaded from the outset and some, like Tracy, have made fierce internal bargains with themselves about what they will and will not think about as long as their children and their children's comrades remain in uniform and in harm's way. The women Tracy meets every week for dinner, each of whom has a son in the Marines or the Army, have a "no politics" rule around their table; this was one of two things I remember Tracy telling me the first time she took me to a gathering of the mothers. The other thing was that draped over a banister in Tracy's house was an unwashed T-shirt Derrick had dropped during his last visit home. I thought Tracy was apologizing for her housekeeping, which I had already seen was much better than mine, but she cleared her throat and said that what I needed to understand was that she hadn't washed the T-shirt because if the Marine Corps has to send you your deceased child's personal effects, it launders the clothing first. "That means there's no smell," Tracy said. She let this hover between us for a minute. "I've heard from so many parents who were crushed when they opened that bag, because they had thought they'd be able to smell their son," Tracy said. ...

When I woke the next morning, it was barely light outside, but Tracy was already at her computer. She was smoking at her desk, which she usually doesn't do, and her face was bleak. "I got a D.O.D.," she said. A D.O.D. is what Tracy calls a death notice from the Department of Defense. These notices come to her as e-mailed press releases, each with a headline that identifies the service the deceased American belonged to ... She had walked around with it all day ... she had known ... only that it wasn't Derrick, first because the Marines had not come to her house ... "The knocking on the door." ... Tracy jammed her cigarette into the ashtray, hard. "And the way I'd react: You've got the wrong house. I just talked to my son. This can't be right. Denial is the first thing. And knowing there's just complete and total despair in somebody's home right now. This is their Easter." She started to cry. "And I feel so grateful, and then so guilty," she said. "Nobody's going to say, 'Thank God, it wasn't my son.' But that's what we're all thinking."

Read the whole article.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted to L&P.

May 20, 2005

Irritable over Iran and Iraq

An "unintended consequence" is a "side effect" of an action that was not intended by the actor. Whether we refer to these effects as "externalities" or the more pernicious, "blowback," one thing is clear: An unintended consequence is not necessarily something that is unforeseeable, as I have maintained here.

The brutal Hussein regime benefited from US complicity in its war with Iran back in the 1980s. Desperate to "even the score" with the Iranian Ayatollahs, who dumped the US-backed Shah and held Americans hostage until Inaugural Day, 1981, the US stood by while Hussein assaulted Iran.

Well, yesterday's pals become today's enemies, and, lo and behold, yesterday's enemies might become tomorrow's friends. Is this what the US intended when it toppled the Hussein regime? The NY Times reports:

In a move that is likely to inflame further Sunni Arab resentments, the Iraqi government publicly acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that Iraq was the aggressor in 1980 when it touched off a bloody eight-year war with Iran. In a joint statement at the end of a three-day visit by the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi, the new Shiite-led Iraqi government said that Saddam Hussein, the overthrown Iraqi leader, and other officials in his government must be put on trial for committing "military aggression against the people of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait," as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes. It was an effort to bring to a close the bitter legacy of the war in which nearly a million people were estimated to have died and tens of thousands more were displaced as refugees.

Well, okay. But while the foreign ministry in Iraq argues that this is merely a way of "lay[ing] the responsibility for the war squarely on Mr. Hussein and other leaders of his government," the pronouncement carries with it other implications. A "gesture of warmth toward Iran" is a sign of "how the political landscape ... has shifted, with Iraqi Shiites, many of whom spent years in exile in Iran, now running the [Iraqi] government." A majoritarian Shi'ite regime in Iraq is much more likely to bolster its ties to the Shi'ite Muslims running the Iranian theocracy. This might be very good for Iran-Iraq relations, but I don't see how the consolidation of theocratic forces serves the cause of freedom.

The Sunni Arabs, who also have little interest in the cause of freedom, are none too pleased. While the Sunnis' former leader lounges about in his underwear (those photos don't quite rise to the level of a "crime against humanity," but don't push me...), the Iranians are cozying up to "the [Shi'ite] religious leadership in Iraq." The Times continues:

In another sign of just how far the relationship between Iraq and Iran has progressed since the administration of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was sworn in, the communiqu said Iran had agreed to open consulates in Basra and Karbala, Shiite-dominated cities in southern and south central Iraq. For its part, Iraq will open consulates in Kermanshah and Khorramshahr, cities in western Iran near the Iraqi border.

I shudder to think of the potential implications among the Shi'ites in Iraq, whom the US has emboldened, should the US decide to invade Iran. If US administrators think that the way to reduce US troops in Iraq is to endorse an exit strategy through Iran, would it be too much to ask that they contemplate, even briefly, the potential unintended consequences of such action?

Comments welcome. Also noted at L&P and LOR

May 17, 2005

Newsweak

With a hat tip to Arthur Silber here, here, and here, I have to say that I too am disheartened, on a variety of levels, over the whole Newsweek affair. Yes, if Newsweek screwed this story up, an apology and retraction are the least one would expect. Of course, this sidesteps a few issues: If the "screw-up" was due to the fact that Newsweek's government source had a change of heart about the story after being "talked to" by various superiors, there are implications here that demand discussion.

In any event, US government officials who demand apologies and retractions from Newsweek might profitably spend some of their time apologizing for their own policy gaffes (Downing Street memo, anyone?)

Yes, we live in volatile times where anything said in the media is liable to invite comparisons to yelling "fire" in a public theater (though there are real questions as to whether this gaffe "triggered" the riots in Afghanistan; see here).

But has anyone bothered to ask why on earth one should "blame" Newsweek for Muslim riots? Let's say, for sake of argument, we take the worst case scenario as true: "Newsweek Lied!" But to say that "People Died!" as a result is to miss a few steps in the causal chain. Michelle Malkin, are you kidding me? As you beat the tom-tom of media censorship, ask yourself a question: Did Newsweek put a gun to the heads of people in Jalalabad to force them to riot? The best conservative defenders of Second Amendment rights tell us, over and over again, that guns don't kill people. People kill people. That is: the actors themselves bear ultimate responsibility for the people whose lives they take. Isn't it amazing how this testament to individual accountability goes out the window when it fits the conservative image of an out-of-control liberal media of fifth-column jihadists?

Moreover, if the mere mention of a possible religious desecration is enough to set off such violence, perhaps nation-builders like Malkin should think twice about the folly of "democratizing" that region of the world. It will take a lot more than elections to create a liberal-democratic society, where flag-burning and book-flushing are among the rights of a free citizenry. The nation-builders will create Democratic People Power for surewith none of the individual rights that keep the tyranny of the masses in check.

Comments welcome.

Update (1): I got a kick out of the fact that the Atlasphere just posted (at 6:32 p.m.) a column by conservative economist Thomas Sowell entitled, "Newsweak." Of course, Sowell is more concerned about the media's liberal bias against the Bush administration rather than the irrationalities of that administration or the irrational savagery of those in Afghanistan who are responsible for deaths attributed to Newsweek. On these issues, check out Silber's follow-ups here, here and here (a Silber trackback is here), and a fine post by Ilana Mercer here (the May 16th entry).

Update (2): This post has been noted by Jonathan Rick in "The Newsweek Incident: Let Them Riot."

April 25, 2005

Democracy and Saudi Arabia

I've had a lot to say about Saudi Arabia, and about the Bush administration's Adventures in Mideast Democracy.

Well, in Episode #2,345 of this Quixotic Political Saga, the Saudi royal family, which has been a trusted US "ally," "has been under pressure from Washington to engage in political reform at a time of social tension and a two-year campaign against the state by militants associated with al-Qaeda." Today, the news tells us:

Candidates on an alleged "golden list" backed by religious clerics have swept the final round of Saudi Arabia's first nationwide municipal elections. Islamist candidates won all the municipal council seats contested in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. They also fared well in northern towns as well as the comparatively liberal port of Jeddah, according to results released on Saturday. Women were barred from the polls, which were presented as a step towards more popular participation in public life.

Of course, the regime itself will pick "roughly half" of 1,200 councillors, which might "dilute" the power of Islamicists. Not that the Saudi regime is all that liberal by comparison. After all, this election news comes on the heels of another news story that the Saudis had detained 40 Pakistani Christians who were caught "attending a service in Riyadh" in a private home. The police also found (horrors!!) "Christian tapes and books." Since one cannot practice any religion other than Islam in Saudi Arabia, this is a crime, in case you were wondering.

I get exhausted pointing out the obvious. This is a regime that is allegedly a "friend" of the United States government. Let's put aside the prospects for democracy among "unfriendly" regimes. Of what use is procedural "democracy" when a "friendly" regime schools its citizens in a fanatical ideology of intolerance, when it marginalizes and criminalizes women, non-Muslims, and freedom itself? Of what use is "democracy" when the dominant culture would bring about a political condition that might make the current Saudi regime appear "moderate" by comparison?

Comments welcome, or readers may comment at L&P, where this has been cross-posted here.

Update: In addition to L&P comments on this post here and here, readers should check out Matthew Barganier's antiwar.com blog entry, "Saudi Democracy: A Little Realism, Please." Matthew makes some excellent points in that post. I agree that the US presence in Saudi Arabia might have made that country a tad less illiberal, and I also agree that the US-House of Sa'ud relationship has been a focal attack point for fanatical Islamic fundamentalists. In many respects, however, the US presence has been a model of neocorporatist intervention, a symbol of everything that is wrong with US foreign policy, as I point out here, for example.

April 01, 2005

April, May, June, July ... Fools

So much in the news on this April Fool's Day, 2005. For example, the "final verdict" on prewar "intelligence" has been issued. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. The "final verdict" won't be issued for years and years. But this particular verdict does make it appear that there were plenty of fools running America's "intelligence" community. American "homeland security" is gravely dependent on the quality of its intelligence. That should make all of us feel very safe.

And then, on the heels of the departure of NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather, another Long-Time Talking Head will be Leaving the Airwavesthis coming December: Ted Koppel, long-time host of ABC News' "Nightline." I've actually been a fan of "Nightline" for many years, if only because it does offer an opportunity for a more comprehensive look at the news of the day, with more in-depth interviews and coverage than that offered on the nightly news broadcasts.

I'm also a religious viewer of the Sunday morning news broadcasts, but I have found them infuriating for the last few years. I spend most Sunday mornings doing a most un-Godly thing: Cursing at the TV Screen. Not only because of what is being said, but because it's the same people saying the same things. Ted Koppel puts his finger on it. As the NY Times reports this morning:

Mr. Koppel said he had been concerned about what he saw as the uniformity of all the Sunday public affairs programsparticularly when a viewer can flip from one channel to the other and see people like the secretary of defense or secretary of state interviewed on each. "That seems to be the general understanding in Washington these days," Mr. Koppel said. "The administration sets the tone and theme and presents the same guests to all the programs at the same time. I don't think anyone is served by that."

Quite honestly, let me put it another way: ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

There.

That felt better.

[begin rant] Why don't they just call the Sunday morning news programs: The Condi Rice Show? Or The Don Rumsfeld Show? Or The John McCain Show? Or (up until recently) The Colin Powell Show? EVERY DAMN WEEK, the same people, over and over and over again. On every channel. Sometimes simultaneously. Taped broadcasts putting to rest the maxim that one can't be in two or three different places at the same time. Who needs a Pentagon Channel? [/end rant]

April Fool's Day? The Washington establishment makes fools of all of us, every day of the year.

Comments welcome.

Cross-posted to L&P.

March 31, 2005

Shifting Sands and Political Labels

All we did was welcome Anthony Gregory to L&P, and a chat has begun on the nature of political labels and their use in discussions of foreign policy and the legitimate use of force. See my comments under the thread "Greetings, 'Enemy Combatants' and Liberty."

March 25, 2005

The Costs of War, Part II

My post "The Costs of War" has elicited more than a dozen comments so far, and if there are any additional comments to be made, I will be sure to reply in that thread. But I wanted to take this opportunity to expand on the points made in the former post, since I have benefited from a good chat with an offlist correspondent on these issues.

Comments welcome.

Continue reading "The Costs of War, Part II" »

March 23, 2005

The Costs of War

Last weekend marked the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. I have found myself thinking about the costs of the war, and of the many issues that war raises...

Comments welcome.

Continue reading "The Costs of War" »

Atlantis II War Chat

I haven't been totally silent for the last couple of weeks; I've been hanging around Atlantis II Yahoo Individualist Discussion Group. If you'd like to get a sense of the foreign policy discussions that have been taking place throughout the month of March, sign up for the list.

If you'd like to see my own posts to the list over these last few weeks, check them out under the thread "Libertarians and Defense," as featured on my Selected Internet Posts, 12/04 - 6/05.

March 10, 2005

Islam and Pluralism

There is a thought-provoking article by Reza Aslan in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education. Entitled "From Islam, Pluralist Democracies Will Surely Grow," the article asserts that "it is pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy," that "Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism," and that democratic change is therefore not as unreachable a goal as some might think.

Continue reading "Islam and Pluralism" »

Rothbard, Rand, and Revisionism

My SOLOHQ essay on Rothbard continues to make the blogosphere rounds. The Gods of the Copybook Headings mentions it, and Le Revue Gauche discusses it as well.

In the meanwhile, today, I posted yet another comment on a running Rothbard thread at SOLOHQ. In it, I discuss the revisionist historical ideas to which Rand and her early associates subscribed concerning the growth of the welfare-warfare state in general, and the issue of World War II in particular.

Readers may comment at SOLOHQ.

Update: I left another comment relating to what I believe are the central questions Rand would have asked of today's military actions: Of value to whom and for what?

March 08, 2005

Ayn Rand and World War II

The discussion over my essay on Murray Rothbard continues at SOLO; go here to trace the exchange or here for specific Sciabarra-related links.

My comment today, however, deserves special mention if only because it draws from a most interesting book by Robert Mayhew, entitled Ayn Rand and Song of Russia: Communism and Anti-Communism in 1940s Hollywood. In the book, Mayhew examines briefly Rand's own objections to US entry into World War II on the side of the Soviet Union. I discuss those objections here and cite relevant passages from Mayhew's study.

Readers may continue to leave comments at SOLO HQ.

Update: I made additional comments here and here, and on another Rothbard thread here, here, here, and here.

March 01, 2005

Changing Politics, Changing Culture

My pal, Cameron Pritchard, who has gone from opposing the Iraq war to favoring it (a condition that affects a growing number of New Zealanders), announced the beginning of his own blog here, for which I congratulated him here. Check out Cameron's Blog.

I had a recent personal correspondence with Cam about Iraq, the recent elections there, and Cam's own switch in position, which he credits to Christopher Hitchens. Given that Cam emerged from Objectivism, I found it interesting that he'd be convinced of the pro-war position by a neocon-ex-leftist.

Continue reading "Changing Politics, Changing Culture" »

February 22, 2005

Islam and Democracy

I just wanted to recommend a new article by David Glenn, "Who Owns Islamic Law?," which has been published in the February 25th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Continue reading "Islam and Democracy" »

February 04, 2005

"Capitalism": The Known Reality

After reading this comment by Jake Smith in response to my "Market Shall Set You Free" post, I took a stroll over to Kevin Carson's Mutualist Blog, which he subtitles "Free Market Anti-Capitalism." It's a provocative subtitle, actually. I've been having an ongoing discussion with a friend of mine for months about the nature of capitalism, so any subtitle that calls for "Free Market Anti-Capitalism" is intriguing on the face of it. (Kevin also has a very interesting book out, entitled Studies in Mutualist Political Economy.) He writes:

If the market and the state have coexisted historically, they can be separated logically. The question of whether class differences originally arose from successful competition in the market, and the state was then called in to reinforce the position of the winners; or whether the class differences first arose from state interference, is a vital one. The fact that the state has been intertwined with every "actually existing" market in history is beside the point; social anarchists themselves face a similar challenge---that the state has been intertwined with every society in history. The response, in both cases, is essentially the same---the seeds of a non-exploitative order exist within every system of exploitation. Our goal, not only as anarchists but as free market anarchists, is to supplant the state with voluntary relations. If the absence of something in historical times, in a society based on division of labor, is a damning challenge---well then, they're damned as well as we are.
The questions of whether state capitalism is an inevitable outgrowth of the free market, of whether decentralized and libertarian forms of industrial production can exist under worker control in a market society, etc., are at least questions on which we can approach the Left with logic and evidence. They are, for the most part, rational and open to persuasion. At the very least, there is room for constructive engagement. And remember, it is not an all-or-nothing matter. It is possible, if nothing else, to reduce the area of disagreement on a case-by-case basis.

Well, questions concerning "free-market anarchism" aside, I agree that the market and the state can be separated logically, and I also agree that the class question is a vital one. And I'm the first to advocate constructive engagement with all parties. But as I suggested here, there is a problem that must be confronted when dealing with "capitalism." Let me explain further.

So much has been said about Ayn Rand's defense of "capitalism: the unknown ideal" that we often forget that the very term "capitalism" was coined by the Left. As F. A. Hayek puts it in the book, Capitalism and the Historians:

In many ways it is misleading to speak of "capitalism" as though this had been a new and altogether different system which suddenly came into being toward the end of the eighteenth century; we use this term here because it is the most familiar name, but only with great reluctance, since with its modern connotations it is itself largely a creation of that socialist interpretation of economic history with which we are concerned.

Hayek found the term even more misleading because it is almost always "connected with the idea of the rise of the propertyless proletariat, which by some devious process have been deprived of their rightful ownership of the tools for their work."

And yet, Rand proudly took up the mantle of "capitalism," defining it as the only moral social system consonant with human nature and "based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned." For Rand, this "unknown ideal" had been approximated in history but it had never been practiced in its full, unadulterated laissez-faire form. It was largely undercut by state intervention.

But we have to ask here: Did Rand---and do free-market advocates in general---redefine "capitalism" in such a way as to make it a neologism? (I address the issue of whether Rand engages in such neologistic redefinition with terms such as "selfishness," "altruism," and even "government" in my books, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.) If real, actual, historically specific "capitalism" has always entailed the intervention of the state, are leftists onto something when they "package deal" state involvement in markets as endemic to capitalism? Of what use is it to keep claiming that libertarians are champions of "capitalism" when that system as it exists is a warped, distorted version of the ideal so many of us hold dear? (I'm leaving aside questions concerning the possibilities for the emergence of a genuinely libertarian social system.)


Now, it may be true, as Ludwig von Mises has argued, that there is a bit of "envy" at the base of the "anti-capitalistic mentality." And it may be true that some socialists would oppose market relationships regardless of the presence of the state because they oppose the very notion of individual enterprise and private appropriation. But the fact remains: Laissez-faire capitalism has never existed in its purest form. Libertarian free-market advocates know this. But even Marx knew it. He argued that existing systems were only approximations to that pure form, "adulterated and amalgamated with survivals of former economic conditions," the kind of mercantilist and neomercantilist state involvement whose "antiquated modes of production" had inhibited the progressive character of markets. (It's this aspect of Marx's work that has been captured in Meghnad Desai's book Marx's Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism.)

This problem of definition is not simply an epistemic one or even a semantic one. It has practical implications. When neoconservative advocates of U.S. intervention in the Middle East talk about "nation-building," about building "free markets" and "capitalist" social conditions abroad as part of the march toward "democracy," those who live in that region of the world do not understand "capitalism" as anything remotely like the libertarian ideal. (Indeed, neocons don't understand it either!) U.S. capitalism as such is equated with "crony capitalism" or with what Rand called the "New Fascism": the intimate involvement of the U.S. government in the protection of business interests at home and abroad through politico-economic and military intervention. It's not simply that the left has "package-dealt" us this bill of goods; it is what exists and it is what has existed, in an ever-increasingly intense form, from the very inception of modern "capitalism."

Indeed, one of the most insidious forms of state intervention has been in the area of money, banking, and finance. And if Austrian economists are correct that the boom-bust cycle itself is rooted in the state-banking nexus, then that nexus and its destabilizing effects have been around in various incarnations ever since "capitalism" was given its name. And this is certainly something that even Marx understood. As I put it in my book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia,

Marx shares with his Austrian rivals an understanding of the political character of the business cycle. Yet the implications of his analysis are vastly different. While [the Austrians] argue for the abolition of central banking, and the separation of the political sphere from money and credit, Marx advocates using the credit system as a mechanism for socialist transformation.
Marx believes that capitalism, based on the dualism between purchase and sale, makes an exchange economy necessary. The exchange process makes possible the emergence of pseudotransactions through an inflationary credit system. Like [the Austrians], Marx views the state as the source of inflation. The state's central bank is the "pivot" of the credit system. Its artificially-induced monetary expansion engenders an illusory accumulation process in which "fictitious money-capital" distorts the structure of prices. This leads to overproduction and overspeculation. Real prices---those that reflect actual supply and demand---appear nowhere, until the crisis begins the necessary corrective measures.
Marx views the business cycle as an extension of intensifying class struggle. The state's ability to thrust an arbitrary amount of unbacked paper money into circulation creates an inflationary dynamic that favors debtors at the expense of creditors. The credit system becomes an instrument for the "ever-growing control of industrialists and merchants over the money savings of all classes of society." It provides "swindlers" with the ability to buy up depreciated commodities. Yet the credit system is a historically progressive institution, according to Marx. Despite its distortive effects, it accelerates the expansion of the global market and polarizes classes in capitalist society. It facilitates socialized control of production and capital investment.

One would find a very similar, though more detailed, analysis in the works of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, with different implications, as I've stated above.

Some of this discussion can be viewed as a complement to Arthur Silber's discussion here, and Gus diZerega's comments here. If libertarians continue to use the word "capitalism" as some kind of ahistorical ideal, if they refuse to look at the fuller cultural and historical context within which actual market relations function, they will forever be dismissed by the Left as rationalist apologists for a state-capitalist reality. That's ironic, considering that so many Leftists have been constructivist rationalist apologists for a different kind of statist reality. But it does not obscure a very real problem.

Reaching out to the Left or to any other category of intellectuals requires a translation exercise of sorts. Real communication depends upon a full clarification of terms; if we end up using the same term to mean different things, I fear we'll be talking over each other's heads for a long time to come.

Cross-posted to L&P, where readers may post comments. See follow-up discussion here, here, here, here, here, and here.

January 27, 2005

On the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

At L&P, I recall Ayn Rand's words from 1946: "On the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz." See follow-up discussion here and here.

January 23, 2005

Quote of the Day

I post a comment from ABC News' Claire Shipman, reflecting on Bush's Second Inaugural Address: "Quote of the Day."

January 21, 2005

Sex Bomb

I post at L&P on a rejected military proposal to develop a "Sex Bomb" for use on enemy troops.

January 20, 2005

Channeling Woodrow Wilson

I reflect on the neo-Wilsonian message of George W. Bush on the occasion of his Second Inaugural: "Channeling Woodrow Wilson."

Update: Check out follow-up discussion here and here. Ahem. The post was also noted at Antiwar.blog.

January 18, 2005

Building a Civil Society

I've posted a new L&P entry about a publishing venture bringing translations of classic Western political philosophy to Syria: "Building a Civil Society."

Update: See follow-up discussion here and here.

January 14, 2005

More on Iraq at SOLO

At SOLO HQ, I pose a hypothetical question to those who use a "liberationist" criterion for US military action abroad. Take a look at the continuing discussion. I make follow-up points here, here, and here.

January 12, 2005

Debating Iraq at SOLO

The debate over Iraq continues at SOLO. I think it is a bit repetitive of points made in former debates. While all of my posts are archived here, I do make some new points today with regard to a comparison between the former Soviet Union and Iraq. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Some related posts are archived starting here.

January 10, 2005

Comments on Pritchard on Hitchens

Cameron Pritchard of SOLO HQ has switched from the anti-Iraq war side of the debate to the pro-Iraq war side, and he credits Christopher Hitchens as the catalyst. At SOLO HQ, I offer some thoughts here.

Update: SOLO discussion on Iraq continues. I post additional comments here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

January 06, 2005

Foreign Policy Commentary

I have made brief comments on two different threads at L&P: At my own "Moving Toward Democracy?" thread, I respond to Sudha Shenoy. I also respond to points made by Jason Pappas in this exchange.

In addition, I respond to Shenoy's essay, "21st Century 'Imperialism' and 19th Century Empire: Some Thoughts."

January 05, 2005

Moving Toward Democracy?

As the Iraqi elections near, I discuss the prospects for "nation building" in that country, with reference to a recent Political Science Quarterly article written by Eva Bellin. See my L&P post: "Moving Toward Democracy?"

And read follow-up discussion: "Regarding Germany." See also comments here and here.

January 04, 2005

The Privatization of Foreign Aid

I posted a new entry to the Mises Economics Blog on "The Privatization of Foreign Aid."

December 23, 2004

Debating Iraq

There's a lot of repetition of points from previous discussions in a recent Atlantis II chat in which I participated. Nevertheless, I've collected my various posts and reprinted them here for archival purposes.

I've also posted a brief comment in response to Arthur Silber's L&P post on Iraq entitled: "No Kidding."

December 21, 2004

Invisible Casualties

As 19 more US troops have been slaughtered in Iraq, I've posted a new essay at L&P: "Invisible Casualties." In it, I discuss the emotional stresses of war that strike at a soldier's need for certainty and efficacy.

Update: Check out follow-up discussion as well.

December 19, 2004

What is Radicalism?

A very lengthy discussion about the nature of radicalism has developed from my exchanges with Michael Moeller and Roderick Long at L&P. Start here.

December 16, 2004

L&P Discussions on Schwartz Continue

Objections to some aspects of my recent series on Peter Schwartz's foreign policy book continue; see my exchange with Michael Moeller at L&P: "Rand's 'Radical' Legacy??"

December 13, 2004

SOLO Discussions Winding Down

Discussions at SOLO HQ on my five-part foreign policy series are winding down (I think). I have posted additional comments: here, here, here, here, and here.

December 12, 2004

Schwartz Discussion Continues

Discussion of my series on Peter Schwartz's foreign policy book continues here, here, and here, where I field questions and comments on everything from ARAMCO and libertarianism to the issue of colonialism.

December 11, 2004

Machan, Schwartz, and Foreign Policy

Part V of my series on Peter Schwartz's new foreign policy book has additional follow-up discussion. Take a look at this exchange with Kenneth R. Gregg, which discusses "Schwartz' Platonism" and the more context-sensitive foreign policy contributions of Tibor Machan. There's additional discussion here.

Also, check out this SOLO HQ discussion, which deals with rationalist tendencies in the writings of some Randians.

December 10, 2004

Peter Schwartz Series: Indexed

Readers of my five-part series, "Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy," which critiques Schwartz's new book, The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America, can follow the links to each of the five parts with this convenient index:

Part I:
Introduction
Schwartz's Core Argument
Part II:
Foreign Aid and the United Nations
Part III:
Saudi Arabia
Part IV:
The History of U.S. Foreign Policy
Part V:
The Current War
The Folly of Nation-Building
The Inextricable Connection between Domestic and Foreign Policy

The series is also indexed at SOLO HQ, and includes further discussion at that site.

Each of these links has follow-up discussion, and I encourage readers to post their comments.

Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rands Radical Legacy, Part V

The concluding fifth part of my five-part series has been posted to the Liberty and Power Group Blog: "Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part V." See also continuing discussion of Part IV, here, here, here, and here.

Update: Comments on Part V can be found in these threads: "Libertopia vs. positions on U.S. foreign policy," "Schwartz's Statism," and "Schwartz' Platonism" (which discusses the contributions of Tibor Machan, and here.

December 09, 2004

SOLO Discussions on Iran Continue

There's lots more discussion on the question of Iran at SOLO; I posted comments here, here, here, here, and here.

Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rands Radical Legacy, Part IV

The fourth part of my five-part series has been posted to the Liberty and Power Group Blog: "Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part IV." See also follow-up comments here, here, here, here, here, and here.

December 08, 2004

SOLO Discussions on Iran

At SOLO HQ, I respond to those who are itching to decimate Iran. This is a continuation of a discussion archived in my post on "The Problem of Iran, Again."

Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rands Radical Legacy, Part III

The third part of my five-part series has been posted to the Liberty and Power Group Blog: "Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part III."

Update: I have an exchange with Geoffrey Allan Plauche and Pat Garret who add their thoughts on "Schwartz's unquestioning nationalistic state idolatry." I discuss inconsistencies in Rand's own stance on the Middle East, among other issues.

December 07, 2004

Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rands Radical Legacy, Part II

The second part of my five-part series has been posted to the Liberty and Power Group Blog: "Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part II."

See comments also in this thread: Randian Collectivism.

December 06, 2004

Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rands Radical Legacy, Part I

The first part of my five-part series begins at the Liberty and Power Group Blog: "Peter Schwartz and the Abandonment of Rand's Radical Legacy, Part I." And take a look at the follow-up discussion.

Also, check out the ongoing dialogue on SOLO dealing with "The Problem of Iran, Again." My newest contributions here and here deal with nuclear proliferation.

December 05, 2004

The Problem of Iran, Again

I comment here, here, here, here, here, here and here on George W. Cordero's SOLO HQ article, "One Down, Two to Go." Additional SOLO HQ comments on Iran are indexed here and here. For those interested in my recent writings on Iran, here's a convenient index to my various posts:

"Inside Iran: Twenty-Five Years After the Islamic Revolution"
"Laissez-Faire in Iran"
"Iran Update"
"Iran: The Anti-Beard Revolution"
"More Kristof, More Iran"
"Kristof's 'Nuts with Nukes'"
"Iran and the War on Islamic Terrorism"
"The Problem of Iran"

I will also address Iran very briefly in my upcoming five-part series, reviewing Peter Schwartz's book, The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America. The series begins tomorrow at the Liberty and Power Group Blog.

November 24, 2004

Ryan Sager Thread Continues

I have a few more comments posted to L&P on the "Ryan Sager Rethinks Libertarianism" thread. In the most recent comment, I address the issue of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

November 22, 2004

Ryan Sager Rethinks Libertarianism

Writer Ryan Sager has been making a lot noise at Tech Central Station and elsewhere about the need for libertarians to become more "muscular" in their foreign policy proposals. I respond more generally to Sager's points in an L&P post: "Ryan Sager Rethinks Libertarianism." I also posted a comment to Ryan's blog here.

Update: Check out follow-up discussion at L&P here

November 15, 2004

To Be or Not To Be ... Democracy?

At L&P, I post excerpts from two interesting NY Times articles concerning the issue of democratic nation-building in Iraq: "To Be or Not To Be ... Democracy?"

November 10, 2004

Rednecks, Greenbacks, and Democracy

I posted two brief comments today at L&P. The first comment is in response to Roderick Long's essay, "Rednecks or Greenbacks?" The second comment is in response to Aeon Skoble's essay, "Quagmire Exit Strategy."

November 09, 2004

The Problem of Iran

I've posted a brief L&P entry on "The Problem of Iran."

November 08, 2004

Conservative Crackup, Part Deux

As a follow-up to an old post from April 2004, I post briefly on the "Conservative Crackup, Part Deux" at L&P. And take a look at the comments too.

Also, check out a little L&P tidbit about chariot games in Iraq: "'Ben-Hur' Comes to Iraq."

November 06, 2004

Clarifying the Bush Victory: Understanding a Multi-Pronged Threat

I have had many public and private responses to my various post-election essays (including quite a bit of dialogue here). No electoral victory can be reduced to a single causal factor. But to minimize the evangelical vote, as some commentators are doing in response to an early media frenzy focusing on the religious bloc, is just plain wrong. I address this issue in my newest L&P essay: "Clarifying the Bush Victory: Understanding a Multi-Pronged Threat." And take a look at follow-up comments as well.

November 02, 2004

Civility in Public Discourse

The discussion of U.S. foreign policy frequently degenerates into uncivil discourse. It's happened at SOLO HQ and many other forums. My SOLO HQ comments today (posted here) address discussion threads here, here, here, and here.

Update: The discussion continues, along with some comments about today's Election. See my follow-ups here and here.

November 01, 2004

Rand and Unintended Consequences Thread, Continued

A few more comments have been registered at L&P concerning my essay, "Ayn Rand and Unintended Consequences."

A Vote for Nobody Because It Won't Matter

At L&P: "A Vote for Nobody Because It Won't Matter," followed by an exchange with Matt Barganier. Also see follow-up from David Beito and Steve Horwitz.

October 25, 2004

Unintended Consequences Discussion

Some discussion of my post on "Ayn Rand and Unintended Consequences" is featured at L&P.

October 23, 2004

Ayn Rand and Unintended Consequences

In the light of recent discussion about the foreign policy positions of many Objectivists, I examine the topic of "Ayn Rand and Unintended Consequences" at L&P.

October 18, 2004

Suskind, Bush, and More

In his L&P post, "Empire and Imperialism," William Marina comments on my L&P post from yesterday. I return the favor, commenting, along with David Beito, on the need for an awareness of system in libertarian foreign policy analysis.

I also add my voice to a discussion that features Aeon Skoble and Charles Johnson, reflecting on Steven Horwitz's L&P post, "Faith-based Presidents and Reality-based Communities." In discussing Ron Suskind's NY Times essay on the political implications of Bush's religious convictions, I remind readers of my own essay on this theme: "Caught Up in the Rapture."

Update: "Caught Up in the Rapture" (originally published in The Free Radical) continues to make the rounds; The Revealer recommends it to readers: "Ayn Rand v. W." I also have additional thoughts at L&P on the libertarian applications of "Systems Theory."

October 17, 2004

Welfare and Warfare, Foreign and Domestic

A new essay of mine appears at L&P, dealing with the indissoluble link between warfare and the regulatory-welfare state: "Welfare and Warfare, Foreign and Domestic."

October 16, 2004

SOLO Foreign Policy Discussions

I have most likely made my final comments on foreign policy in the current SOLO HQ discussion thread concerning Barbara Branden's article. See here and here, and follow-up discussions here, here, here, and here.

October 15, 2004

An Index of My Major Foreign Policy Posts

... that's what today's comment on Barbara Branden's SOLO HQ essay, "Why Many Libertarians Are Voting Against America," constitutes. Read my commentary here and, if you have time, follow all the links to only a fraction of the essays I've written on foreign policy and American electoral politics.

October 11, 2004

Coalition-Building

In response to an L&P post by William Marina addressed to me, "Updating the Marine's Empire Handbook," and to points made by Matt Barganier here and here, I make a brief comment about "Coalition-Building" in opposition to the current administration's foreign policy adventures.

October 10, 2004

America First

At both the Mises Economics Blog and L&P, I post a brief entry highlighting an important article in today's NY Times that deals with the almost-forgotten anti-interventionist tradition of the Old Right on issues of foreign policy. This is a tradition that includes individuals as diverse as Albert Jay Nock, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard.

October 08, 2004

Fascism: In All Its Varieties

In response to my L&P essay on "Freedom and 'Islamofascism'," there have been very interesting comments posted here, here, and here.

I simply could not do justice to the issues raised without addressing them much more comprehensively. So, today, I've posted an L&P essay entitled: "Fascism: Clarifying a Political Concept."

Finally, in another L&P essay that deals tangentially with "Islamofascism," I discuss the most recent CIA report on WMDs as well as the positions, both shifting and tenacious, on the war in Iraq: "Changes in the Intellectual Air."

October 07, 2004

"Islamofascism": Discussion

A discussion has begun on my "Islamofascism" post at L&P. Jonathan Dresner raises a very important point about the issue of specifically Arab civic culture. The exchange begins here.

October 06, 2004

The Problems with "Islamofascism"

I have a real problem with the ways in which some writers use the word "Islamofascism." That, and the issue of democracy in Iraq, is the subject of a post at Liberty and Power: "Freedom & 'Islamofascism'."

I also have one follow-up comment to Aeon Skoble's Dangerfield L&P obituary, "Looks good on you, though."

October 05, 2004

Newbie, Rozsa, and Twin Toes Threads

My posts from yesterday have elicited quite a few interesting discussions.

The question I posed at the Rozsa forum has generated some good answers.

My "Neocon Newbie" post at L&P has several threads. First, there's my discussion with Jonathan Dresner and Pat Lynch on the "three-state solution." I actually reproduce a much larger essay of mine on this subject from November 2003. Second, there's my exchange with John Arthur Shaffer on the implications for social policy that the current election might have. Third, there's my discussions with Aeon Skoble, here and here touching upon my favorite songs and what I'll be watching tonight. (Hint: Baseball trumps politics...)

Finally, the Sciabarra pronunciation thread continues, with a profound personal confession about my ... twin toes. And see other discussions here and here.

October 04, 2004

Neocon Newbie

In addition to some brief observations about the New York Yankees' post-season, I have some observations on another game: the game of politics. Check out my Liberty & Power (L&P) post on Kerry's growing affection for neoconservative foreign policy prescriptions: "Neocon Newbie."